This year, it seems like Christmas is a time for killing in the horror genre. Over the last several weeks, I watched as many of 2018’s holiday horror releases as I could get my hands on, to the tune of a whopping eight films. In addition, I saw four seasonally appropriate releases in the theater. Lawrence’s Liberty Hall screened Black Christmas, and during the annual Nerds of Nostalgia podcast’s Christmas with the Nerds Triple Feature and Toy Drive, I caught Silent Night, Batman Returns, and The Long Kiss Goodnight.

It’s been a bit of a slog, and I looked to see what common threads and themes I could find; after a round dozen films, it seems like the entire purpose of setting a horror film during the holidays isn’t so much for the tinsel and presents, but to use the stressful aspect of get-togethers to really ratchet up the tension in a way which doesn’t require the filmmakers to have any other external or internal stressors.

Suffice it to say, however, there always seems to be some unresolved family trauma that’s really at the heart of everything, only to be exacerbated by coming together in a state of forced joviality. It’s even part of the first movie I watched: Joel McPhail’s zombie Christmas musical, Anna and the Apocalypse. In the case of that film, you have the titular Anna’s dead mom cropping up as a plot point here and there to cause issues between the protagonist and her father and friends.

In terms of Christmassy stuff, the film features two wonderful holiday songs, both of which — “Christmas Means Nothing Without You,” the Shonagh Murrary pop song which plays during the opening and closing credits and Marli Siu’s delightfully, classily filthy “It’s That Time of Year” — deserve to become regular additions to your seasonal playlists. Plus, there’s a zombie in a snowman costume, Anna’s excellent and iconic candy cane, and goodness, I just love the ever-loving hell out of this movie.

Sadly, it seems like I peaked very early in my watching, because nothing would really come close to the joy and excitement I felt watching Anna and the Apocalypse. I’m a sucker for horror comedies in general, but when you add in pop songs and dancing, you’ve pretty much locked me in for good, but I was really hoping to find something in the other films that would grab me.

Although, technically, the first film I watched (and kind of the thing which sent me down the rabbit hole of 2018 holiday horror) was Ugly Sweater Party, which I reviewed for Starburst Magazine. It essentially set the bar pretty low, and possibly influenced just how much of a revelation I found Anna to be when I watched it a few days later.

It took me three weeks to get through all of these films, and while Epic Pictures’ Slay Belles came pretty early on, it’s still pretty memorable. While not memorable for entirely good reasons, Dan Walker’s movie is certainly interesting. Firstly, Barry Bostwick is really good in this. That’s an objective statement, as Bostwick is good in pretty much anything, but here he seems really good, particularly based on the dross surrounding him.

The concept of Santa fighting Krampus in an abandoned holiday amusement park, discovered by three explorers in cosplay outfits has a lot of opportunity behind it — making fun of YouTubers, getting weird and gory, explaining Santa, etc. — but it never really goes anywhere, and the wasted chances are myriad. Add in some real padding on the opening credits and the overlong imagery of the young women when they first get to the park, and when Bostwick pops up on screen, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

The ending is far better than the rest of the film, but it just feels like I’m watching a YouTube short padded out to feature-length. If nothing else, I suppose the fact that the Christmas aspect is kept in the forefront is something with which I’m happy, but overall, I can’t understand the appeal, other than catching a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Richard Moll cameo.

David Ian McKendry and Rebekah McKendry’s All the Creatures Were Stirring is currently available at Walmart for $10, and while that might seem like it should be a big old red flag warning, I was legitimately surprised at just how good the movie ended up being.

While it shouldn’t be surprising, given the genre players involved — Jocelin Donahue, Brea Grant, Chase Williamson, Graham Skipper, Jesse Merlin, et al — holiday horror’s a pretty mixed bag, and festival entry/direct-to-video fare has been pretty iffy as of late, as I was rapidly learning as I went through these films.

Thankfully, while this is an anthology film, all of the segments were written and directed by the same pair, and thus, it ends up being far more coherent than the usual mish-mash of various collaborators. It’s more Trick ‘R Treat than Tales of Halloween, basically, and while certain segments land with more impact than others, the entirety of the picture has a great sense of dread and unease, shot through with more than a little humor. “Dash Away All” in particular is a standout, and demonstrates that the segments which rely purely on Christmassy things, like “Arose Such a Clatter,” don’t necessarily work as well.

Thankfully, it never gets too winky-noddy, with the humor being used to alleviate and heighten tension, as opposed to being the reason behind everything. The frame tale wraps up nicely, and this ends up being one of the rare new additions to my holiday viewing traditions. A lot of folks seem to be complaining that all of the segments are too short, but frankly, I’d rather a hit-and-run approach as opposed to the frequently belabored installments in the V/H/S franchise.

Speaking of belabored, Johnny Kevorkian’s Await Further Instructions is certainly that: a man returns home for Christmas for the first time in several years with his new girlfriend in tow. Within minutes of arriving, his father’s a dick, his sister’s a snot, his grandfather’s a racist, and yet, they still decide to stick around, rather than cutting and running right then.

It’s a whole load of terrible people, and it’s set at Christmas purely as a motivator for the familial coming together, basically resulting in a whole bunch of anxiety, leading up to an ending that comes a little out of left field. It would’ve made for an intriguing stage play, honestly, but as a film, it just seems as if Await Further Instructions is hobbled by its budgetary limitations.

In between when I watched it, and when it debuted on Shudder, Why Hide? underwent a name change to Christmas Presence. Either way, the film from Plenitude Productions is a fucking mess. Literally, what the hell is this?

The plot swerved three times, the characters are underdeveloped, and I have no idea what the fuck went on. It’s kind of pretentious and lowbrow; simultaneously gorgeously shot, but replete with cheap CGI. The ending is literally a wink and a nod directly at the camera. In between the opening and closing, I found myself hating the characters almost wholesale, yet feeling no joy whatsoever in seeing them get axed off, because, with the exception of a rather clever “lesbian bed death” kill, they’re uninspired and barely seen.

Once it was over, I just stared at the screen for a minute, then wandered around the kitchen mumbling “fuck this” to myself. It’s barely Christmas at all, making the change in title a real swerve for anyone who decides to watch it. This movie is the least festive of all the films I watched, and also, pretty much the worst.

Hulu’s series of monthly films, Into the Dark, has gotten mixed reviews, and I feel conflicted about their December installment, Pooka! It seemed like this was going to go a lot further off the rails than it ultimately did, so I’m not sure how much my dissatisfaction with Pooka! is due to what it actually was and how much was due to what I wanted it to be.

A lot of wasted opportunities, essentially, either way you look at it. There was a ton of potential for things to get very weird and very dark, and while I appreciate the overall concept, the chances at utilizing a doll which decides what it wants to repeat and how, and a man in a suit of the same — how this turned out wasn’t where I would’ve gone.

There are certainly enough moments for this to go sideways, and it gets creepy enough at times, but it never really commits to terror, and I think that’s what ultimately bothered me. Also, it’s set in Los Angeles, and watching Pooka!, I realized what bugs the hell out of me regarding all these holiday horror films I watched: with the rare exception, most of these movies feature no snow, and frequently end up set in places where people don’t even need to wear sweaters, much less coats, really driving home the aspect that these films could be set at any time of year.

The classics of the subgenre, like Christmas Evil, Black Christmas, or Silent Night, Deadly Night are all snow-filled, and when watching them, with yourself all bundled up in plaid pajamas and wool socks, a mug of cocoa by your side, you can get really get into the spirit of the season. Sunny skies and 75 do not a sufficient holiday horror make.

The last movie I saw was Wild Eye Releasing’s Mrs. Claus, written and directed by Troy Escamilla, in which “a group of college students attending a Christmas party at a sorority house that has a sinister past are stalked by a bloodthirsty killer disguised as Mrs. Claus.” Evidently, the budget for this Santa slasher was about ten grand, and while it definitely shows in the lighting and sets — most sororities I’ve been to aren’t located in standard suburban tract homes with garages — the crew put a decent amount of cash into practical effects.

Mrs. Claus leans hard into the Christmas spirit in a way many of the other movies I watched don’t: the kills are, for the most part, perpetrated with things like Christmas lights and a giant candy cane, and the score takes a lot from traditional carols. The acting’s not great, and the plot is thin, but the effects are practical and there are two genre icons in Brinke Stevens and Helene Udy, so it’s decent. It’s about on-par with Uncork’d’s series of Krampus films, but sans the abundant nudity and terrible CGI, making it a wash.

Strangely, the one film I seemed to have missed as part of this was the latest entry in the Uncork’d Krampus series, Krampus: Origins, but I saw 2016’s Krampus Unleashed, so I figure I’m good on that front. I really don’t need to see another.

After watching eight of 2018’s holiday horror releases, I’ve realized several things: most holiday horror really only pays lip service to the holiday, but even the ones which really lean into it aren’t necessarily any better for the inclusion of lights and tinsel. Most of the movies are really relationship-driven dramas made the worse for the inclusion of a bloodthirsty creature of some variety.

As pretty much every movie I saw was an ensemble piece, the rare instances with close, one-on-one interactions (as opposed to roomfuls of bickering squabbles) worked the best, and really gave the actors a chance to engage in something more than yelling. Given the across-the-board low budgets for these films, the acting is a little (a lot) uneven, and the fewer people in any given scene, the less chance you’re going to notice just how wooden some of these performances are.

Factor in the seasonally inappropriate weather of many of these films, and there’s definitely a checklist you can assemble to determine whether or not any other future holiday horror is worth viewing:

  • If there’s no snow, it’s a no-go. It’s desserts, not deserts, that make your season merry.
  • Without a tree, leave it be. Decorations — even just some lights and a wreath — make all the difference.
  • Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker. Drunkenness is wonderful, and excuses many poor decisions.
  • Santa slays. Keep your antagonist seasonally appropriate: no new mythology to cram in alongside Krampus. That said, I’d love to see someone do Festival of Slice, a Hannukah-themed slasher, because the genre is pretty Christianity-centric.