In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that has become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
To transform Santa Claus into a ravenous, bloodthirsty killer requires a certain amount of cruelty. A mystical gift-giver with roots in the North Pole, Santa and his fleet of flying reindeer represent childlike naiveté at its most pure, one of the last fantastical myths that we as a society encourage our kids to embrace. To swap out Santa’s sack of gifts with a shotgun or machete is to pervert that myth, to weave menace and cruelty into an altogether pristine figure. It feels wrong.
Of course, that’s precisely the point. In fun, schlocky fare like Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, and even American Horror Story, killer Clauses are portrayed as the polar opposite of our beloved Saint Nick—they’re foul-mouthed, crusty, and disappointingly human. In these movies, the North Pole’s superpowered Santa Claus is nothing but a myth, with psychopaths donning Kris Kringle’s signature garb as a way to work through their own Santa-related trauma. (Seriously, though, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is nothing if not a killer’s origin story.) The result is a lot of grimy affairs punctuated by lo-fi, low-budget production and gore effects with all the grace of a ketchup squirt. Like so much good horror, however, the trope can sometimes feel like a countercultural act of rebellion, a way to shatter the magic and strip away the innocence, thus recasting Christmas as the ugliest time of the year.
And then there’s Santa’s Slay. Released direct-to-DVD in 2005, the film is undoubtedly a slasher—its kill count surpasses 30—but it’s also relentlessly cheery, subsumed with a wide-eyed wholesomeness that perseveres beyond all of its foul language, gratuitous nudity, and impalings. In Hell Township, where the film takes place, snow falls in thick, fluffy flakes over an idyllic downtown thoroughfare as rosy-cheeked carolers harmonize with the chiming of Salvation Army bells. PG archetypes abound, including a kindly Jewish deli owner (Saul Rubinek) and an eccentric elderly inventor (Robert Culp) who repeatedly tells his grandson, with no trace of irony, to not take the Lord’s name in vain. Even the film’s star-crossed teens, Nicolas and Mary (Douglas Smith and Emilie De Ravin), defy slasher stereotypes with their virginal desires, which never extend beyond the possibility of a first kiss. This is a film where a character demands, again with no trace of irony, to know “the truth about Christmas.” There’s no chugging nu-metal or menacing ambience on the soundtrack, just “Joy To The World,” “Jingle Bells,” “Deck The Halls,” et al. Ugly isn’t what director David Steiman is aiming for here; bright and pristine, the film unfolds with all the warm, vibrant hues of a Rankin/Bass special. There’s even an extended stop-motion puppet sequence.
But Santa’s the real star here. Played with relish by gruff wrestler Bill Goldberg, this Claus isn’t just a killer in costume but the real Santa Claus, with an origin story that’s leaps and bounds more complex than that of the real Saint Nick. See, according to The Book Of Klaus, an ancient Norse text presented to Nicolas by his grandpa, Santa is a product of Satan in the same way Jesus is a product of God. As such, Santa turned Christmas into “The Day Of Slaying,” which was, well, exactly what it sounds like. But after losing a curling match—yes, a curling match—with one of God’s angels, Santa was ordered to spend the next 1,000 Christmases delivering presents instead of beatdowns. That was in 1005. The film takes place in 2005. You get it.
Slashers are fun, but they’re not known for their narrative complexity. More often than not, we meet an interchangeable cast of stereotypes, then squeal with delight as each meets their untimely end. There’s something adorable about the way Santa’s Slay puts such care into giving its killer a whimsical origin story, especially since that’s the sort of thing no one would think to demand from a killer Santa movie. But Santa’s Slay continually finds a certain charm in its vulgarity. For every warmhearted elder or cherubic teen, there’s a potty-mouthed grinch or hypocrite, each painted with the broad strokes of a Dick Dastardly cartoon. It’s hard to feel any sense of revulsion at their deaths, especially since Santa’s preferred methods of slaughter are holiday-themed: He stabs one thug with a candy cane, lobs grenades made from Christmas tree baubles, and occasionally calls upon his mutant reindeer to run over the elderly (“Grandpa got run over by a reindeer!” bellows Santa). Truly, Santa’s love for puns is on par with Mr. Freeze’s: “Who’s your daddy?” Santa asks at one point, answering his own question with “Father Christmas.”
Santa’s Slay isn’t scary so much as it is silly, though its greatest source of fear, curiously enough, lies at the heart of its wholesomeness. Although Santa claims to kill both naughty and nice, he’s clearly much more interested in slaughtering those who disregard Christian morals of right and wrong. Take a look at his victims: the greedy, the rude, the carnal, the covetous. It’s these sinners he hunts down. His only “innocent” victims—some bumbling cops and a troupe of carolers—die because they get in his way. Santa’s moral crusade takes a darker turn once you factor in that, in the world of Santa’s Slay, biblical myths of Christ, heaven, and hell are proven as fact. That makes the film’s odd emphasis on Judaism that much more curious, especially during the scene when Santa kills Mr. Green, the Jewish butcher.
After Santa deploys Goldberg’s signature spear on Green—seriously—the cowering man flashes his Star of David in a last ditch effort to save himself. Santa tears it from his hand, then impales Green’s neck with a menorah. Green’s last words are to Nicolas, telling the boy that, yes, “there is a Santa Claus.” Nicolas’ (weird) response? “I thought you people didn’t even believe in him!” The religious implications here are unavoidable, and stick out like a sore thumb among the lunacy of everything surrounding it. Couple all of this with Nicolas’ third-act assertion that he’ll “never take the Lord’s name in vain again” and you’re left with the sense that you may have accidentally just watched a horror movie made by militant fundamentalists. (You didn’t, by the way.)
Ten years later, Santa’s Slay remains a singular creation, a bizarrely entertaining convergence of contrasts. It’s simultaneously vulgar and wholesome, stupid and satirical, violent and lighthearted. Goldberg’s Santa isn’t here to soil our yuletide traditions or shatter childhood innocence, but rather to extend the holiday’s glad tidings to a subsection of the filmgoing community that doesn’t afford itself enough warm fuzzies. Yes, Santa’s Slay is a slasher, but it’s one the whole family can enjoy, preferably while sipping hot chocolate beside a crackling fireplace.