With Christmas nearly upon us, it’s time to stop and reflect on the true meaning of the holidays. For some, it’s about expressing thanks to a higher being. For others, it’s about spending time with loved ones. For others still, it’s about giving and receiving (but mostly receiving). But for the select few, Christmas really means one thing: Killer Santas. Today, we’re going to trace the lineage of my favorite example of this character, and decide which of his incarnations is most likely to make you shake in fear, like a bowl full of jelly.
“…And All Through the House” first appeared in the 35th issue of The Vault of Horror (March 1954), one of the sister publications of the more-famous title Tales from the Crypt, published by EC Comics. Written and illustrated by Johnny Craig, this appears to be the earliest example of the Killer Santa trope—though the Santa Claus in Ogden Nash’s 1942 poem “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus” did vengefully turn the unbelieving brat Jabez Dawes into a Jack in the Box.
After the mandatory introduction from our horror host the Vault Keeper (disguised as Santa Claus), the story proper begins with a panel-wide sound effect: Whomp!, signifying the bludgeoning death of Joseph by his gold digging wife with a fire place poker on Christmas Eve. The sound of the man’s skull caving in is loud enough to wake up their young daughter Carol in her bedroom upstairs, who simply cannot wait for the arrival of Santa and desperately wants to see him when he comes. After ensuring that little Carol has gone back to sleep, the woman sets about covering up her crime (while singing Jingle Bells, naturally) so that she can collect the money from his life insurance policy.
A news report comes over the radio, declaring that a mental patient has escaped from a nearby institution and has already murdered four women. Wearing a Santa Claus costume stolen from a man in the nearby town of Pleasantville (the village in New York where illustrator Johnny Craig was born). The killer was last seen headed in the bludgeoning wife’s direction. It is only a manner of moments before there is a knock on the door. Cautiously, she looks outside… and instantly recognizes Santa Claus standing on her doorstep.
Unable to leave because a madman is waiting for her, unable to call the police for help because they will discover her murdered husband, she scrambles about the house in an attempt to spare her own life. She checks on her daughter and discovers that Carol’s bed is empty. Rushing back downstairs for the final scene, she finds a haunting image awaiting her.
It ends without a true resolution, but it’s easy enough to figure out what fate awaits this murderess.
In 1972, the anthology film Tales from the Crypt was released. It adapted five stories from EC Comics properties–this story among them. Our leading lady is given a name here, Joanne Clayton, and played by the illustrious Joan Collins. Our killer Santa was played by Oliver MacGreevy, an older gentleman who looks more like a legitimate mall Santa than a murderous psychopath. Even when he begins to strangle Joanne, it comes across almost as a particularly vigorous neck massage. Still, the pacing was just right, successfully translating the 8 page comic story into a 12 minute short.
Interestingly, a novelization of the movie was released the same year—making it a literary adaptation of a film adaptation of a comic book story. I was unable to attain a copy, but as it was written by Jack Oleck, himself a frequent contributor to EC Comics titles, we can safely assume that it was faithfully translated.
1989 saw the premiere of the HBO anthology series Tales from the Crypt, and they wasted little time in adapting this story for the series. Technically the second episode of the series, it was one of three that broadcast on the show’s 90-minute premiere on June 10—a full half year before Christmas. Scripted by Fred Dekker and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the murdering wife’s name has been changed to Elizabeth and is being portrayed by Mary Ellen Trainor. Gone is any sense of tension or subtlety that may have been present in the original adaptation, as Dekker and Zemeckis essentially turn this into the last reel of a slasher flick, where the final girl and the madman finally meet up for one last confrontation. Saint Nick here is played by Larry Drake, who is physically a much closer representation of the comic’s Killer Santa. He is more imposing than the aged Oliver MacGreevy, but his gibbering turns him into something of a living cartoon and somewhat lessens the effect.
The bleak cartoonish humor and the excessive violence working together were hallmarks of the comic book series, as well as the HBO anthology. Much of the humor is missing from the Amicus film, as it is very much a staid British thriller. However the humor was typically reserved for the host segments, not so much the stories themselves. The over-the-top performances by Drake and Trainor are always fun to watch, but if you’re looking for straight chills, you’re better off sticking to the movie.