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These Are the Only Four New Release Horror Movies Remaining in 2022

These days it seems like Christmas and horror go together like hot cocoa and candy canes sharpened to a deadly point, but in the long history of film, this is a relatively recent development. Of course there are a few exceptions, but before 1972, it was a rarity to enjoy a vicious Christmas at the local theater. As to why horror was not set at Christmas for so long is an interesting question. Perhaps it was considered off limits to use what many consider a sacred holiday for such dark purposes. But then, holidays of any kind, including Halloween, were rarely seen in horror films before the seventies. In those days, studios would often roll out their theatrical releases over long periods of time, and limiting the reliable market fulfilled by horror films to the small window of the holiday season was likely a risk they were unwilling to take. In the golden age of Hollywood, Christmas movies in general were considered box-office poison and rarely advertised as such. Even the perennial favorite (and hit at the time), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), was marketed with a trailer that makes no mention of either Christmas or one of the film’s major characters—Santa Claus.

But even with this stigma, there were plenty of Christmas films in the days of classic cinema. Horror films set on the holidays, however, were exceedingly rare, and even these had a magical, even fairy tale, quality to them. Curse of the Cat People (1944) is the story of a child, Amy (Ann Carter), who befriends the ghostly presence of Irena (Simone Simon) from the first film. The British anthology Dead of Night (1945) features a segment, once again about children, and the games they play in a house decorated for the holiday. In the story, Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) encounters a frightened young boy during a game of sardines that turns out to be the ghost of a child who died in the house. Night of the Hunter (1955) is explicitly meant to be a dark modern fairy tale with only a brief epilogue taking place at Christmas with the children, hunted throughout the film by Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), in the care of their protector Miz Cooper (Lillian Gish).

Though these films are the prime examples of classic era Christmas horror, none of them have more than a few scenes set on the holiday. Curse of the Cat People spends the longest there, but technically speaking, the bulk of the holiday sequence is on Twelfth Night, when the Christmas decorations are traditionally taken down. Some may note that there were multiple versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol made in this era, but the only one that truly leans into the horror of the story is the British-produced Scrooge from 1951 starring Alastair Sim. The fact that three of these four films were made in England and a third had a British director is telling. There had been a long tradition of the Christmas Ghost Story throughout England particularly in the Victorian period, which produced scores of ghost stories, by Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott, Edith Wharton, M.R. James, and more, read near the Christmas hearth on cold winter nights. Three of the four films discussed here also feature ghosts, but all of them are benevolent, even those like Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that have fearful exteriors.

‘Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House’

A major shift toward holiday-bound horror began in 1972 with two films: Tales from the Crypt and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? In some ways, both underscore the fairy tale and ghost story elements of earlier films as they both have a “story told by the fire” quality to them, but both also rebel against these traditions and add a deep layer of darkness not seen in Christmas horror before as the cynicism of the 60s and early 70s found its way to the screen. Movies had changed considerably as a whole, it was only natural that horror, with its deeply transgressive nature, would be a major part of that change. And fifty years ago, horror set its subversive sights directly on Christmas.

Britain’s Amicus Films had become Hammer’s primary competitor in the 1960s by releasing a run of successful anthology films including Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), and Asylum (1972). Tales from the Crypt, based on stories originally published in William M. Gaines’s EC Comics, proved to be the most successful of all. The opening vignette, “And All Through the House,” finds Joan Collins as Joanne Clayton killing her husband on Christmas Eve. As she attempts to clean up the mess, she must keep her deeds secret from her sleeping daughter, Carol (Chloe Franks), and evade an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa Claus (Oliver MacGreevy).

Unlike earlier holiday horrors, there is no magical or fairy tale sensibility to the sequence. There is very little innocence to be found, with the exception of Carol, as we spend most of our time with a murderer. The childlike quality of earlier films is stripped away and replaced with cynicism, a strong sense of irony, and some of the darkest comedy this side of Tobe Hooper’s “red humor.” Though a brief story, it may well be one of the most influential in all of Christmas horror. With its mean streak, killer Santa, and wicked sense of humor, lines can be directly drawn to Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), Deadly Games (aka. Dial Code Santa Claus-1989), and Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) in which the captured bearded man looks very much like the psychopath in this film. It was also remade and greatly expanded by writer Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, The Monster Squad) and director Robert Zemeckis for one of the three pilot episodes of the Tales from the Crypt television series for HBO in 1989.

‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is not as widely seen as “And All Through the House” but it does cap off one trend in horror while helping to kick off another. After the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, a number of horror films were produced starring aging Hollywood stars, many with similarly unwieldy titles. Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) all helped define what has come to be known as “hagsploitation” or “psycho-biddy” horror. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? latches onto the fairy tale element of earlier Christmas horrors, it is a direct retelling of Hansel and Gretel, but does so by way of Baby Jane, Psycho, perhaps a bit of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and more than a little Sunset Boulevard (1950).

It concerns a wealthy woman, Mrs. Forrest, who lost her daughter Katharine in an accident years before. She holds seances in attempts to reach the spirit of Katharine as her mummified corpse lies in a crib in her old room. Mrs. Forrest, played with scenery-chewing relish by Shelly Winters, also throws an annual Christmas party for a group of children, who know her as Aunt Roo, from the nearby orphanage. The children refer to her massive, ornate mansion as “the Gingerbread House,” an early clue as to the eventual nature of the story. Two of these orphans, brother and sister Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy Coombs (Chloe Franks—also the daughter in “And All Through the House”), sneak into the party uninvited but soon gain the attention and affection of Aunt Roo. This proves to be rather sinister as she slowly takes on the characteristics of the child-eating witch of the classic story.

Inside Auntie Roo’s sprawling old home, the children find creepy toys, a sadistic butler, a rat-infested dumbwaiter, and a working guillotine. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is without a doubt a weird movie, including a scene in which Shelly Winters performs one of the more bizarre musical numbers committed to celluloid, but also carries a depth and melancholy often found in the best Christmas movies, with a horror twist. Though early entries in the “psycho-biddy” subgenre had big studio backing, Auntie Roo was released by American International and, despite its classy veneer, is an exploitation film through and through. It is one of the last of the first round of films in the trend, released a decade after Baby Jane, but also the start of one of the most beloved types of horror films in the years and decades to come: Christmas horror.

‘Christmas Evil’

Though these two films did not exactly open the floodgates to holiday horror, they did seem to at least give permission for the possibilities. The following year, The Legend of Hell House was released and though not explicitly a Christmas horror film it is set in the week leading up to the holiday. In 1974, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas was not a huge hit but set the stage for holiday horror to come and has since become an undeniable classic. Following this, maestro Dario Argento set a key scene for Deep Red (1975) on Christmas. By the mid-80s, Christmas horror was in the zeitgeist. Cult movies like Christmas Evil (1980) gave way to hits like Silent Night, Deadly Night and all out blockbusters like Gremlins in 1984.

Scores of Christmas horror films have been released since then including smaller gems like P2 (2007), A Christmas Horror Story (2015), and Hosts (2020); new favorites like Black X-Mas (2006) and Krampus (2015), and even a zombie musical—Anna and the Apocalypse (2017). (For a thorough list, be sure to check out Megan Navarro’s fantastic article featuring well over 100 horror movies set during the holidays). This season alone has seen Violent Night, Christmas Bloody Christmas, The Leech, The Apology, and The Mean One released in theaters and on VOD or steaming along with “The Outside” episode of Cabinet of Curiosities on Netflix.

We are truly living in an era of holiday horror riches. In many ways that is all thanks to these two films released 50 years ago, and that is a great reason for horror fans to be merry.

‘Christmas Bloody Christmas’ (2022)

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