When Santa Slays: Holiday Genre Movies

With the release of “Violent Night,” here’s a guide to streaming genre films that feature a not-always-jolly St. Nick.

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By Erik Piepenburg

Genre cinema has always been a welcoming place for films about psychopaths who dress like Santa and go slashing through the snow. But in the new action comedy “Violent Night,” it’s not a make-believe Santa but the fat man himself (played by David Harbour) who goes on a slaughtering rampage. (His victims are evil hostage takers so don’t worry, he’s still the good guy.)

Matthew C. DuPée, the author of the new book “A Scary Little Christmas: A History of Yuletide Horror Films, 1972-2020,” says there aren’t many movies about sinister or strange actual Santas because the man is such a benevolent figure, unlike Krampus or other punishing Christmastime creatures from European folklore.

“There’s no aspect of punishment to Santa,” DuPee said in a phone interview. “His worst character trait is that he leaves coal instead of a present. It’s in that lack of overtly dark undertones where genre jumps in to explore darker themes.”

If you’re a movie lover who thinks getting coal in your stocking is the sign of a year well lived, celebrate the holidays by streaming these outre Santa films. Mystifyingly, most of them are family-friendly, depending on your tolerance for bro humor and grossout horror.

Scary Santa

‘Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale’ (2010)

Stream it on Hulu.

This creepy folk-horror fairy tale is about a precocious little boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila), who’s worried that crews drilling on a mountain near his Lapland home will disturb the frigid terrain where an evil Santa-type creature from Finnish mythology is buried in the icy snow. When Pietari’s dad (Jorma Tommila) traps one of the entity’s devilish elves, father and son team up to make sure that this dark-sided Santa and his ancient evil are never defrosted.

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“The Thing” meets “A Christmas Story” is the best way to describe this nightmarish film from the Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander. (It’s told in Finnish and English.) Based on two of Helander’s short films, it’s a combination of touching family drama, St. Nick origin story and dark comedy, with scares that come mostly from a snarling Santa and his trollish, naked ghouls. The ending will make you appreciate — and fear — your nearest mall Santa the next time you plop a child on his chubby lap.

Sci-Fi Santa

‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ (1964)

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

It’s been a rough holiday season for Kimar (Leonard Hicks), leader of the Martians. His kids Bomar (Chris Month) and Girmar (Pia Zadora!) are glued to Martian television’s coverage of Christmas on Earth, and they can’t understand why the jolly guy in red doesn’t travel to Mars with toys and cheer like he does for little Earthlings.

To soothe things at home, Kimar has the real Santa Claus (John Call) snatched from the North Pole and brought to Mars to set up a toy shop; Earth siblings Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti) get caught up in the kidnapping plot, too. Of course Santa wins over his alien captors, becoming Earth’s Christmas spirit ambassador to Mars.

Directed by Nicholas Webster, this is “a Christmasy little movie, with science-fiction trimmings for fledgling astronauts,” as Howard Thompson put it in his New York Times review. This is the most kid-appropriate movie on this list, although little ones might be freaked out by the Martians’ avocado-green faces. Adults will appreciate the Nixon gag and the ultra-mod “Lost in Space”-ish design.

Slapstick Santa

‘Fred Claus’ (2007)

Stream it on HBO Max.

Vince Vaughn reunited with David Dobkin, his “Wedding Crashers” director, on this dippy comedy that falls somewhere between the good-hearted goofiness of “Elf” and the rebelliousness of “Bad Santa” — just the thing for fans of SantaCon fight videos.

Fred (Vaughn), a smooth-talking Chicago repo man, gets bailed out of jail by his older brother, Nick Claus (Paul Giamatti), and invited to the North Pole on the condition that Fred help the saintly Nick and his elves get through the holidays by pitching in at Santa’s bustling workshop. Things take a dark turn when an unscrupulous efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) threatens to shut down the toymaking. Goofball that he is, Fred still has a heart of gold, and like a last-minute Christmas Eve trip to the mall, he saves the holiday.

The film has a surprisingly starry supporting cast, including Kathy Bates as Fred’s disapproving mom, Rachel Weisz as his put-upon girlfriend, Miranda Richardson as the exasperated Ms. Claus and Ludacris as Santa’s good-time house D.J.

Supervillain Santa

‘Santa’s Slay’ (2005)

Rent or buy on most major platforms.

This action-slasher dark comedy stars the pro wrestler Bill Goldberg as a Santa on a killing spree. Set in Hell Township, the story posits that Santa is actually the son of Satan who lost a bet with an angel (Robert Culp) and was sentenced to deliver presents for 1,000 years.

Now that his punishment is over, the bomb-throwing Santa is on a scorched-earth mission to exact revenge on the angel and the angel’s grandson, Nicolas (Douglas Smith). The final showdown involves a high-stakes game of curling and a fiery portal to perdition.

Despite its low budget, this breast-baring, foul-mouthed film, written and directed by David Steiman, plays like a Hollywood action movie, which makes sense since its fight choreographer, Andy Cheng, worked on “Rush Hour” and other Jackie Chan films. Ridiculous violence, including death by menorah, and decidedly dated jokes drive the humor. (Hold your nose at the casual homophobia.) James Caan and Fran Drescher play a noxious couple in the film’s joyously gory opening scene.

A Singular Santa

‘Santa Claus vs. the Devil’ (1959) (a.k.a. ‘Santa Claus’)

Stream it on Tubi.

If your thirst for strange Santas is still not quenched, this discomforting Mexican morality tale will be the gift that keeps on giving — nightmares, that is. (It’s dubbed in English so you won’t miss a baffling word.) DuPée called it “one of the most bizarre Christmas films of all time.”

The story begins as children from around the world join Santa (José Elías Moreno) to do his bidding, surely in violation of international child labor laws. (Brace yourself for the racist caricatures). Unfortunately, Satan is out to turn Earth’s kids against Santa and Christmas, like a Luciferian subversion of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But Santa isn’t having it, and from his workshop/space station, he works magic to thwart the devil’s anti-joy agenda.

René Cardona’s funhouse-meets-hell-house film is some hybrid of science fiction, holiday fantasia and Christian children’s television. (Cardona was a king of Mexican exploitation cinema, in films like “Night of the Bloody Apes” and “Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy”). The lessons in good versus evil seem aimed at kids, but only a Scrooge would watch the film with anyone under 13 unless you want to answer questions like: Why does Santa own a giant pair of fuzzy lips? Why would sad-faced dancers terrorize a little girl in a nightmarish dream ballet? What moisturizer does Satan use to make his face glisten like a drag queen? You’ve been warned.

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