A quick hop around your cable guide will usually turn up the same handful of titles every Christmas season. "It's a Wonderful Life," "White Christmas," and modern favorites like "A Christmas Story" and "Elf" seem to dominate the yuletide rotations.
But once you get past the A-listers, a lot of Christmas-themed movies embrace a distinctly creepy vibe. Admittedly, many of those belong to the disturbing “Serial Killer Santa” sub-genre, but there are still quite a few options that are a bit more family appropriate (and not all of them are connected to Tim Burton).
So if you're the kind of person who likes to celebrate Halloween all year round, or if you just need a change of pace from Ralphie and his Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, here are seven options to give you a different kind of winter chill.
Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993). Probably the most obvious choice on the list is this stop-motion cult classic about a skeletal Halloween icon named Jack Skellington, who tries to hijack Christmas from Santa Claus. Burton didn’t actually direct “Nightmare,” but the film has the macabre director's signature imagination all over it. It might also be the best cinematic example of our culture's habit of blowing past Thanksgiving to get to the good stuff.
Moment to watch for: Jack delivers the children some non-traditional gifts.
"Krampus" (2015). Once you start digging into the various histories and mythologies behind many of our Christmas traditions, you start turning up some very interesting stuff. For example: The Krampus is a Germanic boogeyman who visits the homes of the bad girls and boys. Last year, he visited Toni Collette and Adam Scott’s dysfunctional fictional family in the suburbs. This year? Well … you can just insert the political joke of your choice here.
Moment to watch for: The invasion of the elves.
"Scrooged" (1988). Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" tells the story of a man who spends Christmas Eve getting visitations from ghosts. It’s hard to think of a creepier Christmas than that, and yet few Christmas stories have been adapted for the big screen as frequently. In 1988's comedy version, Bill Murray plays Ebenezer Scrooge as a cutthroat TV executive who needs a lesson in the true Christmas Spirit.
Moment to watch for: The promos for Murray’s holiday schedule, including “The Night the Reindeer Died” and “Robert Goulet’s Old-Fashioned Cajun Christmas.”
"Batman Returns" (1992). The creepiest of Tim Burton's Batman movies, which had Michael Keaton's Caped Crusader squaring off against Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), also played out against a Christmas backdrop. It’s a hard juxtaposition to argue against.
Moment to watch for: Keaton and Pfeiffer’s budding romance is put on hold after a revealing dance at a Christmas party.
"Santa with Muscles" (1996). For a different kind of Creepy Christmas, try "Santa with Muscles," the movie equivalent of the James Brown Christmas album. In this one, pro-wrestling legend Hulk Hogan plays an evil amnesiac multimillionaire who believes he is Santa Clause. “Santa with Muscles” is currently pulling a 2.4 out of 10 score on IMDB.com.
Moment to watch for: A young Mila Kunis playing one of the girls at an orphanage.
"Scrooge" (1970). The second adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" on this list follows the traditional vibe more closely, and easily features the most uplifting finish of any of these selections. But while the Leslie Bricusse-penned musical numbers and the performance of a young Albert Finney are big highlights, the scenes with Jacob Marley (played by a pre-Obi Wan Alec Guinness) and the menacing Ghost of Christmas Future are a lot creepier than you might remember.
Moment to watch for: The Ghost of Christmas Future's surprising reveal in the cemetery.
Gremlins (1984). The use of Darlene Love's "(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home" over the opening credits is a deceptively upbeat introduction to director Joe Dante's story of the worst Christmas present ever. A frustrated inventor wants to give his son Billy a unique gift, and he thinks a cute little fur ball named Gizmo is the solution. Unfortunately, Gizmo reproduces, his offspring mutate into a pack of frenzied goblin creatures, and one happy little town spends Christmas Eve under gremlin occupation.
Moment to watch for: The gremlin horde packs a local movie theater to see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.