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Movie Review: 'Violent Night'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The words Santa's sleigh take on an ominous double meaning in the new film "Violent Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIOLENT NIGHT")

DAVID HARBOUR: (As Santa Claus) Time for some season's beatings.

CHANG: The movie killed at the box office over the weekend, grossing more than $13 million. It's part of an unholy subgenre of scary holiday movies and reminded NPR's Neda Ulaby of one of her earlier reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Scary Christmas movies are a catharsis for some people, including Michael Dougherty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL DOUGHERTY: Christmas is really stressful. I think we can all admit that. We put all these pressures on ourselves to spend time with your friends and your family and spend all this money that we don't necessarily have.

ULABY: Dougherty is a director. I talked to him back in 2015 when his movie "Krampus" came out. It's based on a frightening figure from German folklore, kind of an evil Santa Claus. Darkness lies deep in this holiday's DNA, says Dougherty, starting with King Herod's slaughter of the innocents in the Bible and including Charles Dickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DOUGHERTY: One of the most iconic Christmas stories is a spooky, eerie ghost story, and that's "A Christmas Carol."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Scrooge) Humbug, I tell you. Humbug.

DOUGHERTY: That is a dark story.

ULABY: Or a certain holiday ballet with sugar plums and a dancing, evil rat king. Nutcrackers terrified Michael Dougherty as a kid.

DOUGHERTY: They have such manic expressions with the bared teeth and these really wide, crazy eyeballs.

ULABY: These frightening figures perhaps provide release from a sense of forced gaiety and from seasonal anxieties about being unhappy or alone. Maybe that explains the dozens and dozens of Christmas-themed horror movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM NO. 1)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, laughter).

HANNAH FORMAN: Oh, it's a thing. It's a big thing.

ULABY: That's Hannah Forman, a horror movie expert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FORMAN: You have "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Silent Night, Bloody Night," "Jack Frost," "Puppet Master Vs Demonic Toys," "A Cadaver Christmas," "Silent Night, Zombie Night" - should I keep going?

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM NO. 2)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No, Santa. No, Santa. No.

ULABY: No, that's OK. Thanks. Forman says most of these movies are exploitative and cheaply made. But she says one from 1974 called "Black Christmas" is both underrated and influential...

FORMAN: It's considered by some to be one of the first slasher films in the U.S.

ULABY: ...With sorority girls fighting a psycho killer while carolers sing outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK CHRISTMAS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, grunting).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing, inaudible).

ULABY: And it may be the first to use a now-classic horror movie trope.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK CHRISTMAS")

DOUG MCGRATH: (As Sergeant Nash) The caller is in the house. The calls are coming from the house.

ULABY: "Black Christmas" was directed by Bob Clark, who was also responsible for one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")

ZACK WARD: (As Scut Farkus, growling).

PETER BILLINGSLEY, IAN PETRELLA, SCOTT SCHWARTZ AND R D ROBB: (As Ralphie Parker, Randy Parker, Flick and Schwartz, screaming).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ULABY: "A Christmas Story" from 1983 featured a memorably monster-like bully.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")

JEAN SHEPHERD: (As Adult Ralphie) He had yellow eyes - so help me, God, yellow eyes.

DOUGHERTY: So there's a guy who really loved Christmas but also understood both sides of it.

ULABY: Director Michael Dougherty says his film "Krampus" was partly inspired by another 1980s movie that mixed Christmas with horror - "Gremlins." Scary Christmas movies speak to an era of rampant commercialism, brutal class inequality and bitter cultural divides. They reflect our Yule time fears.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.