Jamie Lee Curtis is confined to a train with a disgruntled killer. A family vacation gets drenched in blood when the little ones reveal murderous urges. Gabriel Byrne goes satanic long before his family was terrorized by occult forces in Hereditary (2018). Christmas may be stressful, but plans for New Year's aren't the time for a sigh of relief.
Thanksgiving and Easter are fellow niche holidays that have fun in providing frights or schlock. New Year's can fuel its own horror stories too. Mistakes of the past aren’t easily forgotten. Ancient evil threats wish to partake in the midnight celebration. The end of the year can be the time for friends and families to fall apart as danger ensnares them. Pop the champagne. Eat up as many grapes as you can. For the following movies, thinking up a good New Year's resolution is the least of their characters’ worries.
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
“It’s a spooky place to wait for midnight, here among the dead.” David (Victor Sjöström, also the director) tells this to his friends as they sit in a graveyard. You know, as one usually does. After suffering an accident, David is stuck revisiting his past, similar to A Christmas Carol, if Scrooge's walk down memory lane happened on December's closing night. David has made many mistakes but is he too far gone for redemption? There is hope among all the misery. Absent of spoken dialogue, the music score can be eerie, sometimes somber, and other times whimsical. While this movie shows its age, it doesn’t mean it’s any less effective. And it isn’t hard to see why it’s still incredibly influential a century later.
The colors switch depending on whether it’s day or night, indoor or outdoor, and mood. Special effects that no doubt scared the crap out of the audience in the day remain an early template for ghostly appearances on-screen. Stanley Kubrick borrowed several thematic and visual elements for The Shining (1980), clearly seen with the negative effects of alcohol abuse and an ax chopping down a door. As for The Phantom Carriage, it’s a story all about new beginnings. It was remembering the past while focusing on the promise of the future.
Terror Train (1980)
“It’s a rotten crowd.” This steel caravan is carrying just that. Pre-med students decide partying it up on a train is a unique way to celebrate the big night. Among them are seniors who have done something awful in the past. Like Alana, one of Jamie Lee Curtis’ more relaxed Final Girls. Although, not for long. A killer is along for the ride too, planning to remind the seniors of their misdeeds with their dying breath. Something made clear from the start is how frigid the weather is. At the station’s platform, everyone’s breath is heavy and dense. It sets a gritty tone, with a story all about misdirection. The killer wears their victim’s costume, keeping up the charade of hiding in plain sight. Real-life magician David Copperfield is another train passenger, playing -- wait for it -- a fictional magician. When Alana wonders how a trick was done, she’s told the answer is all part of the secret. And that’s at the heart of this slasher classic. Everything is in disguise, from the costumes to the harmful prank covered up. By the finale, Alana locks herself in a cage, the killer doing everything to get inside. The set-piece truly puts the terror in Terror Train.
New Year’s Evil (1980)
“Tell me will there be sweet New Year’s Eve or do I fear a New Year’s Evil!” Shadow, an in-movie band, sings this early on. Punk rock and new wave vibes are what carry this slasher flick. A good thing too, this is New Year’s Eve, is it not? Bring on all the music, and dancing with no rhythm. It’s an oddball slasher flick though, one that popped up during the subgenre’s boom in popularity. The killer is very human, one who hardly wears a mask. And unlike other entries on this list, the killer travels far and wide to find victims. More campy fun should be had as the killer attacks across different US time zones as midnight closes in. A DJ (Roz Kelly) hosting a NYE party is the Final Girl, even if she doesn’t have much of a fighter’s spirit. She’s at the mercy of the killer, starting with a strange call from the killer. New Year's Evil is definitely a ripoff of better movies, but it still is worth a watch.
End of Days (1999)
It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. the infernal forces of Hell in this occult thriller. Yet, his character Jericho Cane isn’t the typical hero to this kind of high stakes battle. He’s suffered great pain and at the start, is at a low place. What is scarier than world damnation? Arnie’s breakfast smoothie. Jericho is a slob and throws into a blender a concoction to test anyone’s gag reflex: coffee, Pepto-Bismol, stale beer, leftover Chinese food, and a slice of pizza off the floor. It’s horrifying. When Jericho's own inner demons aren’t trying to destroy him, it’s the Devil (Gabriel Byrne), who has taken human form.
“When the thousand years have ended, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison.” The biblical passage cautions of what is to come for the last midnight of 1999. Y2K fears are well left aside. Seeing Arnie in a dark role like this is in stark contrast to his 80s hyper-alphas. Once he learns the Devil desires a specific young woman (Robin Tunney), he's ready for action. If you have Arnie in the lead, you also can’t go without giving him some one-liners: “Between your faith and my Glock 9 mm, I take my Glock.” So cheesy and so good.
The Children (2008)
For a winter vacation in time, two families get together at a secluded home surrounded by nothing but woods. One of the younger kids ends up sick. They throw a tantrum, getting more physical than usual. It’s all right, the parents will handle it -- then the illness spreads. At 80 minutes, this is a lean-mean thriller from director Tom Shankland. In other horror movies when characters don’t rise up to take on the monster, it can make audiences want to tear their hair out. It’s life or death! Where are their survival instincts? Here, the monsters are the characters’ own children. Even if it means staying alive, the parents struggle with the impossible decision. Hannah Tointon is a stand-out as Casey, the oldest of the kids who wants to hang out with her friends instead of this family reunion. Teen angst allows her to see through the parental fog and realize the tots are out of control. A time-out will not only piss them off. It will give them time to plan out a terrible demise.
What can go wrong, will go wrong in this twisty noir tale. A deadly hit-and-run? Check. A poor attempt at covering up? Many checks! Like when the characters return home, thinking they are in the clear. Then they see their license plate is missing. That isn’t good. Jeff (Dylan McTree) and Lindsey (Alexandra Essoe) are in a strained marriage too. Trying to figure out what to do with a dead body isn’t part of professional couple counseling. It threatens to break them apart entirely. As the story unfolds, more complications get added, worsening the distrust. There’s a limited cast with the arrival of Lindsey’s sister and a strange man. Can it get much worse? Yes, it would seem. A hit-and-run is not really the edge of no return. Jeff and Lindsey keep pushing everything further. The first incident was an accident. The next will involve first-degree murder.
Midnight Kiss (2019)
When the clock strikes midnight, will you be at the club? If so, this one will make you afraid to kiss the wrong stranger. It’s a slow burn, building up the bonds between this friend group, all the little talked about conflicts bubbling to the surface. Cameron (Augustus Prew) is really not looking forward to a NYE trip. His toxic ex is an integral part of his friend circle. At least Cameron has Hannah (Ayden Mayeri). “You accept your friends for the good and bad, right?” Hanna says to him. Oh, how they both will regret agreeing to this. While this starts and ends as a slasher flick, it’s a friendship in crisis that carries the story forward.
Cameron and Hannah take care of each other, but she’s the only woman and straight person among the group of gay men. At the club, Cameron ditches her. In the end, it’s all about obsession and how it can poison the individual and the people they’re around. But it also has a New Year’s Eve party that is, no pun intended, to die for. Blue and pink lighting shoots across the dance floor, and high energy powers up everyone’s body. The scene can look similar to anyone’s maybe boozy, probably sweaty, late night out. It’s euphoric amidst the carnage of victims covered in glitter and a wine bottle turned into a painful murder weapon.