Stressful situations have always been fervent breeding grounds for horror movies, which probably explains the abundance of horror films that take place around Christmas. After all, when you’re experiencing yuletide-related anxiety, a horror film can be a healthy reminder that things could be much worse. This is a particularly blessed holiday season on Netflix Instant, with a whopping five horror films to remind you that your December is pretty good.
That last sentence is actually a lie, because of two of these movies are bad enough to make make a crummy holiday season even worse. Which ones are they? Well, for starters…
Jack Frost* (1997)
This is a fairly standard tale: On his way to the electric chair, a serial killer—Jack Frost—gets mixed up with a barrel of molecular-bonding acid. His soul becomes attached to snow cells, making him an immortal snowman, and he decides to terrorize the town of Snowmonton and the sheriff that originally apprehended him. A macho FBI agent gets involved, and also a really nerdy scientist. Most of the townspeople look like Wilford Brimley.
Not much can be done in the way of avoiding this movie—you’ve already read the previous paragraph or at least watched the trailer—and you probably remember the awesome cover from when Blockbuster still existed. Now that you know it’s streaming on Netflix, you’ve probably already stopped reading this to go watch it.
Which is too bad, because it really is a movie with no redeemable qualities. Well… that’s not entirely true. The antifreeze used to kill Jack Frost (sorry, spoiler alert) has a snowman on the front that’s kind of cute. A guy’s killed by an icicle going through his head and the wall behind it, and the icicle pulses on the other side of the wall. That’s stupid enough to be fun. As previously mentioned, it has a great cover, although it also warrants mentioning: The killer snowman on the cover does not appear in this movie. The movie’s snowman is much like a normal snowman, but with evil eyebrows.
Other than that, it’s not particularly scary, funny, or exciting. Like a Troma movie, it looks like you’re watching reality TV that’s shot on 16mm film. Unlike a Troma movie, Jack Frost doesn’t take advantage of its micro-budget to go truly apeshit and have a good time. The most entertaining bit is trying to figure out how they’re going to pull off the next kill with the giant, immovable snowman prop. The answer’s usually that they just don’t show it happening. They also have a great way of avoiding the need to show Jack coming through doors: Due to the incident with the acid, he can just make himself melt and then reform on the other side of them. Here’s a drinking game: Take a shot every time the movie creates suspense by showing water gushing underneath a door. (Warning: You’ll die if you actually do that.)
“If he can reform, why does he always reform as the same snowman?” you ask. “Wouldn’t he be more effective just killing people as snow?” Because fuck you, that’s why (not my words; I’m just interpreting the film).
The most memorable scene—I didn’t say best—might be when Shannon Elizabeth (in her first role!) is raped to death by the snowman in a bathtub. The cinematographer deserves credit for shooting the entire scene without letting any nudity whatsoever hit the frame (in fact, these might be the only shots in the film where any attention was paid to the frame at all). And this raises an interesting thought: Somebody, at some junction, must have decided that they didn’t want something gross, like nudity, to spoil the decency of a scene in which a snowman makes his carrot-nose a penis and rapes somebody to death with it. The logic there is a good indicator of the brainpower put into Jack Frost, and it’s also probably an indicator of what’s wrong with the world at large.
*In case of confusion: This is not the Jack Frost with Michael Keaton in it. That film is legitimately terrifying.
Dead End (2003)
The first thing you’ll notice about Dead End is “Holy shit, Ray Wise!” And rightfully so. By showing Ray Wise’s face, Dead End is automatically better than Jack Frost within its first 10 seconds. It’s a movie about a family and a fiancé on their way to Grandma’s house for Christmas. The family is dysfunctional, and everybody’s mouthing off to each other in the car. Think You’re Next, but in road trip form.
Ray Wise usually takes the freeway on the family’s annual trip to Grandma’s, but this year he decides to take his Jeep Cherokee through the back roads. That turns out to be a mistake, because he ends up on a back road that’s a lot more haunted than back roads usually tend to be. The family eventually runs into a mute woman in all white that’s carrying a baby. It’s a suspect situation, but they decide to take her to a cabin they passed a couple miles back, and the daughter decides she’ll let the woman have her seat and just walk to the cabin. That seems like an insane move, until you realize that she just wants to smoke a cigarette and is actually a genius.
Back at the cabin, Ray Wise and Lin Shaye (who’s incredible as the family’s matriarch) go inside to look at torture devices on the walls while their son goes off into the woods to look at a porno-mag and masturbate (this was 2003; no iPhones yet). This leaves the fiancé of the closeted-smoker daughter and the mute woman alone in the car. They chat a little, and then she tells him her baby is dead, and shows it to him: It’s really, really dead. He screams, and when the whole cast gets back to the car, him and the woman are both gone. A super cool black vintage sedan drives by with the fiancé inside, and everybody piles into the Jeep Cherokee so Ray Wise can attempt to catch up to it. He ends up running over the fiancé’s mutilated body in the road, and this becomes the skeletal form of the plot structure: Weird stuff happens, mute woman appears, somebody disappears, black car, body in the road, and so on.
Because the fiancé dies first, and only the daughter cared for him, anyway, we get a whole lot of time with the nuclear family arguing with each other and being hilarious. As the film progresses, we learn all sorts of fun family secrets. I’m going to refrain from spoiling anything past the first act, but I’ll say that the second act has some very nicely done gore for a film that I wouldn’t necessarily describe as gory. Also: Ray Wise eventually breaks out a bottle of scotch and takes large pulls from it while driving, and it’s as great as it sounds. It’s a major credit to writers/directors Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa that the comedy ramps up right along with the horror. I expected the comedy to stall out once things switched into Scary Mode, and I was glad to be wrong about that.
The ending… Well, it’s fine. I think. It explains the rules of all the wackiness on the road in a way that I felt was satisfying, but I read The Stand recently, so I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to experience major disappointment from an ending ever again. I feel like Lost really knocked it out of the park after finishing that book.
Saint Nick (2010)
This is a film made in the Netherlands that was distributed stateside by IFC, but don’t let these things fool you. This is an extremely silly movie (with some extra silliness added by the unfortunate English language dub that you’re stuck with here). Saint Nick—originally Sint and also sometimes called Saint—reimagines the [possibly] historical figure of Saint Nicholas as a fallen bishop that went around on a ship with a bunch of rotten scoundrels and bullied small villages. The story opens with Nick delivering one of these villages a message, demanding that stuff like gold, meat, and virgins be delivered to him by dawn. The villagers think things over and decide to just set Nick’s boat on fire, and him and his men all burn alive. Things were a real thrill in those days.
We jump forward to 1968, where it appears the boat fire didn’t finish off Nick and his men after all, because Nick is sucking three kids up into a chimney and killing their father. A fourth kid has gone to his family’s barn to service the plot, and he sees Nick on top of the roof. He’s on horseback—a good indicator that this movie might be really good. The kid goes inside to find blood everywhere and his mother stumbling around with her eyes gauged out. Then she dies. This is definitely in his top five worst Christmases.
We jump to a high school classroom in present-day Amsterdam, where the students are participating in an anonymous, class-wide gift exchange. The teacher happily announces they’ve reached a new class record when a fifth dildo is unwrapped at the front of the room, and then class is dismissed and everybody goes outside to their mopeds. This sets high stakes for our protagonists: It’s always a shame when high school kids die in horror movies, but leaving lives that are filled with this many dildos and mopeds makes things so much worse. The kids all moped off to get ready for various Saint Nicholas Day celebrations, which generally means that they’re either going to dress up like Santa Claus or put on blackface.
This is probably a good time to point out that the traditional Netherlands mythology of Saint Nick, or Sinterklaas, includes a large crew of helpers that are all called “Swarte Piet,” which is roughly “Black Pete” in English. By “roughly,” I mean that they’re literally men that are all black and named Pete. So when high school kids in Saint Nick start putting on blackface, don’t be offended; it’s just tradition.**
Anyway, the kid whose family was murdered by Nick in 1968 is a cop now, and he’s still pretty upset about the whole thing. After seeing a Christmas present on his desk and shooting it four times, he’s told by his chief to take a month off to get himself sane again, which is roughly the same punishment a cop gets for killing a minority in the United States. He knows there’s a full moon tonight, which means Nick’s coming to steal children and murder people, so instead of getting sane, he just goes rogue. Meanwhile, the high school kids are attacked by undead Black Petes.
This movie has some pretty great gore, and it’s probably the most expensive one on the list; it can’t be cheap to create scenes where zombie Santa Claus runs around Amsterdam rooftops on a white horse. It’s never really scary, but it’s fun enough to make up for that. For instance, the third act goes into full-blown zombie pirate territory, with a big ghost ship and fog and Black Petes all over the place, so there’s more action here than horror. The plot’s pretty stupid, with most characters dying before you really remember they’re even in the movie, but again, it’s fun enough to make up for that. It leaves room for a sequel, and—unlike Jack Frost 2—I wouldn’t hate myself for watching it.
** That’s a joke. Of course you should be offended; it’s a fucking horrible tradition. To anybody that thinks rednecks are limited to America: Remember that there are people in the Netherlands who are absolutely appalled by dirty liberals trying to take away their Black Petes.
ATM is a confined space horror movie that mainly takes place inside of one of those ATM rooms that requires a card-swipe to get into. It stars Alive Eve, Josh Peck, and Brian Geraghty (fun fact: Geraghty also appeared in Jarhead along with Scott MacDonald, who played Jack Frost). They all work at a stock company that does various things involving stocks. Geraghty’s always wanted to ask Alice Eve out, and this is her last day at this stock company before she leaves for a different stock company. Josh Peck convinces Geraghty (I hope you’re having fun trying to imagine how that name sounds in your head) to go to a Christmas Eve stock company party. At the party, Alice Eve accepts his invitation to drive her home, but Josh Peck intrudes because he wants a free ride. Once in the car, Josh Peck insists they stop for pizza, because he’s really just a complete dick in this movie. The pizza place only accepts cash, so they need to stop at an ATM first. You know something bad will happen there, because the movie is titled ATM. This is the most boring paragraph I’ve ever written, and this is the worst movie on the list.
ATM is labeled as a “horror-thriller.” Note: Whenever a hyphen is used to add the word “thriller” to another genre, it’s generally being used a euphemism for “boring.” Even the parka-wearing killer that’s terrorizing the three people stuck in the ATM room looks bored by the whole ordeal, despite the fact that he must be ecstatic with his good fortunes: A car pulls up with three people in it, and not only do all three of them go into the room, but they also park a half mile away and don’t have a single working phone between them. It’s a real Christmas miracle for a maniac.
You might think that the victims’ occupations have something to do with the plot or the ending or really anything at all. They don’t. Evidently, the filmmakers just felt that hanging around three stock analysts was the most exciting way to spend the movie’s first 20 minutes. Ironically, the stock company Christmas party is the film’s most engaging element; things get so boring at the ATM that the killer gets a lawn chair out of Geraghty’s trunk and and has a sit-down.
You won’t find gore, humor, pathos, or anything else worthwhile in this movie. The only thing you’ll find is an ever-escalating amount of plot ineptitude. There can’t be more than three or four logical events or decisions in ATM‘s 90 minutes, and every dumb thing is exponentially dumber than the last one. If you think the ending might somehow retroactively effect the rest of the movie: It doesn’t. It’s one of those reveals where the big shocker is that the whole incident was just an act of random targeting. Is the fact that there’s nothing to spoil a spoiler? Just in case, uh, spoiler alert.
This was the only movie on the list distributed by a major studio—thanks, Universal!—and the only one that made me furious that I had to finish it. If you time traveled back to 1986 and showed this to an audience, they’d demand that you shut it off and show them that movie about the train pulling up to the station again.
Like ATM, Stalled takes place in a confined setting—in this case, a bathroom stall—but that’s where the similarities end. The logo for Phase 4 Films at the movie’s start lets the audience know that they’re about to see something extremely British (the Netflix description says the main character is “appropriately named W.C.,” and I had to use Google to find out that bathrooms are sometimes called “water closets” across the pond). This is good news for a movie that takes place during a zombie attack at an office Christmas party, because the British have distinguished themselves as masters of zombies, offices, and especially Christmas parties.
The film begins when a janitor—indeed, “appropriately named W.C.,”—goes into a woman’s restroom to fix a faulty speaker. As his watch beeps to remind him it’s Christmas Eve, he finds a dead rat in the speaker and flushes it down a toilet. He closes the door and takes a nap, and things brighten up for him a bit when he wakes up to two women from the office deciding to take a break from the party to make out at the bathroom sinks. Then one becomes a zombie and bites the other’s throat, and he’s forced to crush her head in with a toilet seat. In a British production, you can always tell that things are about to go horribly awry if the protagonist is experiencing a moment of joy.
It’s a remarkably funny movie, which makes it impossible to not compare it to Shaun of the Dead, but it manages to stand apart in the zom-rom-com genre. And yes, it does include some romance: W.C. strikes up a relationship with a woman two stalls over that remains unseen, drawing an estimation of her face on the wall that the camera cleverly cuts to when she speaks. But the themes tackled aren’t the same ones as Shaun: W.C.’s journey is more concerned with him facing the fact that he’s walled himself off from society and love through a combination of pride, shame, and shallowness. He spends his time primarily learning to not hate himself, and in turn to allowing himself to like others. Like Shaun, though, Stalled knows that being a hilarious character study is fine and dandy, but that if you’re going to add zombies in the mix, you need some really great gore effects in there, too. And it doesn’t disappoint in that department. The gore is fantastic, fun, and 100 percent practical.
Looking at the user reviews on Netflix, this was the worst-rated film on the list. I’m not sure why. I watch a lot of British television (I like to feel cultured, but I’m too lazy to learn another language), and maybe the humor just doesn’t quite click with many people who don’t. Indeed, is it very British—it even manages to include a short ecstasy-induced sequence—but I still don’t think any fan of good horror could be disappointed with it, regardless of the amount of time they’ve logged with the BBC.
So, I’m calling it: Stalled is the best Christmas horror film that’s streaming on Netflix. Dead End is a very close second, and Saint Nick is a solid third. And if you find yourself in strange doomsday scenario in which you’re forced to choose between watching Jack Frost and ATM, go with the former.
Screengrab via YouTube