It could be the way the letters of 'SANTA' conveniently rearrange to spell 'SATAN' at the hands of distracted preschoolers, or it could just be the tendency of the stressful season to pressurize folks (until they POP), but there's something uncanny about Christmas that inspires filmmakers to maim and murder en masse on the big screen. The second seems to be the case in the mother of all Christmas-sploitation movies, Bob Clark's Black Christmas, which plays tonight at 7:30 at the Roxie. Clark, who one can arguably say had his fingers on the pulse of all things Christmas at one time (he also directed the cable classic A Christmas Story), paints a grim picture of the season in this pre-Halloween slasher, often considered the mother the modern mayhem movies. We all know the story by now, but the devil is in the details–the creepy skittering in the attic, horrifying phone jabber, increasingly crazy kills, a vertigo-inducing, first-person "killer" cam, the now-ubiquitous peeping eye, and a very scary hockey mask among them.
Despite flaunting all its genre conventions, Black Christmas manages to remain scarier and more suspenseful than its descendants, partially because it never actually shows the murderer, or even gifts him with a spooky Kruger-like backstory. With the killer nowhere to be found, actress Margot Kidder, the original Lois Lane, almost steals the show by playing a foul mouthed, alcoholic version of herself. Lucky for you, she'll be at tonight's screening!
If you're stuck under a snowy mound of paperwork this evening and get too scared to watch Black Christmas at home alone, do not, under any circumstances, turn on the histrionic 2006 remake–celebrate the season with one of these Santa-centric slashers instead:
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
In this high-gloss 2010 Finnish comedy/thriller, an American drilling team across the Russian border unearths an ancient evil that tears apart their camp and destroys the reindeer crop in a local Finnish hamlet that depends on the meat's export value to make their living. Little Pietari is the only one clued in to the fact that the monster on the loose is actually a version of Santa Claus, based on Finland's malevolent man-goat spirit of Christmas, Joulupukki. A refined visual sense and satisfying amounts of Carpenter and Cameron worship mixed with some moments of genuine fear make this one a fun diversion, if a little too scary for young kids.
Christmas Evil (AKA You Better Watch Out)
Definitely more frightening if referred to by its original title You Better Watch Out (possibly changed to give it reason to appear on double bills with its cheesy glam cousin, New Year's Evil, this 1980 slasher may have been the first time Santa himself appeared as the killer. While its relatively tame beginning may deter some viewers, Brandon Maggart's portrayal of a mentally scarred toy-maker bent on making Santa come to life is simultaneously hilarious and poignant. The absurd gallows humor and gruesome indictment of life in suburban New Jersey may explain why John Waters once called it his favorite film.
Joe Dante's Steven Spielberg-produced creature feature is probably familiar to anyone who grew up with a television in North America, and doesn't actually contain any appearances by evil ol' Saint Nick, but I've included it because of the incongruously terrifying speech that one of the characters, Kate, makes in the film about how her father died: By breaking his neck climbing down their chimney dressed as Santa Claus. Despite myriad other big moments throughout the film, as a kid this cold blast of the genuine macabre in this otherwise jovial flick terrified me for years to come.
Silent Night Deadly Night
Though it's probably the most well-known film in the Santa-as-slasher genre, this Christmas slay-ride cropped up in 1984, a full four years after Christmas Evil, and is indebted more to genre classics like BlackChristmas, Psycho and Halloween than its predecessor. After landing in a Catholic orphanage (where he is abused, naturally) and after watching his parents murdered by a psycho in a Santa get-up, young Billy becomes unhealthily obsessed with looking out for who's been naughty and who's been nice. Though bound to genre conventions, Silent Night is a ton of fun, and features some great kills; a gory antler-impaling sequence is particularly eye-popping. Yet it also suffers from no fewer than five sequels, all of them awful. The second film in particular reaches Troll 2 levels of so-bad-it's-good-ness, and is the source of one of Youtube's longest enduring non-sequiturs, "Garbage Day".
Not as malevolent–but certainly as criminal–as these aforementioned sinister Kringles is big screen bad boy (and soul patch enthusiast) Billy Bob Thornton in Terry Zwigoff's cult favorite Bad Santa, which SF Sketchfest screens at the Castro Theatre on Saturday along with a few other classics of Christmas snark, Elf and Scrooged. Assorted guests are slated to appear for the screenings, including Bobcat Goldthwait, Tony Cox, and director Terry Zwigoff. Sounds like a good place to take Grandma while she's in town! Plays this Saturday at The Castro Theatre.