Everything about Santa Claus is supposed to be heartwarming, from his bright red hat to that big white beard. But filmmakers have long realised that you can take the comforting iconography of Saint Nick and easily twist it into something a little more sinful. Just look at this week’s Violent Night, starring David Harbour from Stranger Things as a boozy, two-fisted Santa Claus. It is by no means the first time audiences have seen a darker side to the season’s jolliest icon, as this rundown of disreputable Christmas would-be classics shows.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
A toy store employee with a pathological fear of Santa goes on a Christmas killing spree after he is forced to wear the famous red suit in this cheap but disturbing slasher. The madcap tone ranges from goofy to genuinely disturbing, but after a third topless scene ending in violence you may feel like you are ready to hang up your stocking. Despite – or perhaps because of – its luridness, Silent Night, Deadly Night inspired four sequels and a 2012 pseudo-remake (Silent Night, also available on Shudder) co-starring Malcolm McDowell.
Streaming on Shudder and available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV+ and more
Dial Code Santa Claus (1989)
This deeply strange French film – also known as Deadly Games, Game Over and Hide and Freak – has achieved cult status because of its uncanny resemblance to Home Alone. Both feature a precocious kid creating booby traps in a grand old house to protect themselves. But here the star is a mullet-sporting nine-year-old obsessed with Rambo who uses hi-tech gadgets to fend off an unhinged Santa (in reality, a recently fired sociopath who has spray-painted his beard white). It is highly eccentric but great fun, and if not for one early scene of animal-related violence, it would get the full five (Christmas) stars.
Streaming on Shudder
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Reindeer Games (2000)
When this dumb-but-fun crime drama was released in the UK it was retitled Deception, which ruins one of its best jokes: Ben Affleck plays a himbo convict named Rudy (sadly he does not have a red nose). After being mistaken for his cellmate on release, Rudy is strong-armed into a Christmas casino robbery in chilly Michigan by femme fatale Charlize Theron and an extremely intense Gary Sinise; the third act sees the gang don Santa Claus suits to more effectively pull off their heist. If you enjoyed Affleck looking confused for most of Gone Girl, you will love this snowy bonanza of double-crossing.
Streaming on Sky Cinema and available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV+ and more
Bad Santa (2003)
The movie concept of a complete dirtbag using a Santa suit to disguise their squalid nature seemed to truly crystallise in 2003. That’s when Billy Bob Thornton starred in Bad Santa as a hedonistic, horny mess of a human being with a grim annual ritual of infiltrating and then robbing a department store at Christmastime. Despite all the off-colour humour, it is a surprisingly fun ride with more seasonal spirit than you might think (just ignore the belated 2016 cash-in sequel, proof positive that the holiday has simply become too commercialised).
Available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV+ and more
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
This Finnish fantasy makes Santa Claus scary again by positioning him as a child-eating nightmare who has been encased in ice for centuries for humanity’s safety. When a shady corporate mining operation apparently digs up a wheezy old man with an unearthly bearing, determined local boy Pietari tries to unravel a series of mysteries. Why have all the local reindeer been slaughtered? Where have all the town’s toasters gone? Who steals sacks but leaves behind potatoes? Atmospheric and witty, Rare Exports is a Christmas treat with a wicked twist.
Streaming on BFI Player and FreeVee; available to rent on Amazon, Apple TV+ and more