Written by: James Kee, Sarah Larsen, Doug Taylor, and Pascal Trottier
Directed by: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, and Brett Sullivan
Starring: William Shatner, George Buza, and Rob Archer
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You better watch out.
Once the calendar breezes by Halloween, it’s easy (if not tempting) to put horror aside for a couple of months and enjoy the coming festivities of Thanksgiving and Christmas, a time of peace, love, and joy (with the exception of Black Friday which is, of course, a total horror show). Of course, this is only true if you’re a relatively normal person—obviously, there are many of us who can’t help but to keep indulging in horror. No sooner than we digested our Tales of Halloween did we feel the need to feast on more, and, thankfully, the creators behind A Christmas Horror Story realize this. To fill the holiday horror void, they’ve prepared a banquet of blood, guts, and demons laced with yuletide cheer in an effort to deliver this holiday season’s own anthology to (somewhat predictably) mixed results.
While A Christmas Horror Story is in no way related to its Halloween counterpart from earlier this year, the general notion is the same: set in the small town of Bailey Downs, it roves through a variety pack of tales set in a small town plagued with assorted flavors of evil. William Shatner serves as a de-facto radio DJ host as we watch a greedy, dysfunctional family encounter Krampus, a group of teenagers investigate the sordid, bloody history of their school, and a couple of parents’ horrifying discovery about their son following an ill-fated Christmas tree excursion. Hell, we even see Santa Claus fend off a zombie outbreak at his workshop in the North Pole.
Obviously, there’s no lack of variety here, as each tale stands distinctly apart from the others. While the two family-oriented segments pair well together, A Christmas Horror Story mostly feels like a random assortment, sort of like a prepacked gift basket with the season’s most popular trends and flavors: you’ve got zombies, Krampus, ghosts, and even a creepy kid tale to serve as a nice sampling of what the genre’s been preoccupied with in recent years—all with a little bit of Christmas trimming to boot. Such an approach is valid enough, but the execution—particularly in the way the stories simply unfold without much rhyme or reason—leaves a bit to be desired. Rather than allow each tale to unfold as its own, complete segment, they’re mashed together as the film haphazardly cuts between them. They’re not intertwined (only Shatner’s framing segment provides a loose connective tissue) so much as they’ve been tossed together like so much candy in a stocking.
If nothing else, such a structure makes it easier to peg which segments are more effective than the others. While watching, it became clear enough that the Krampus and high school ghost story emerged as the two most absorbing tales. It’s no coincidence that these two featured the most memorable set of characters and leaned into the most interesting lore. As dark Christmas stories that invert the holiday’s iconography (Krampus is an anti-Claus, while the teenagers in the other story learn their school may be a breeding ground for the antichrist), both feature a solid mix of irreverence and creepiness: at no point can you take either of them seriously, but they have just enough of a mean streak to work, like little cinematic lumps of coal (which is one of the most delightfully twisted Christmas traditions imaginable—it’s no wonder we still mine this holiday for weird, spooky shit).
On the other hand, the remaining two tales manage to drag. Santa Claus vs. Zombies becomes the tedious, one-note joke you might expect, with a burly Santa Claus mowing through foul-mouthed undead elves for the duration of the story. Not only does it wear out its welcome, but it also sticks out like a sore thumb from the other segments. Where those all focus on small-town encounters with Christmas evil, this one’s far removed from Bailey Downs, situated up at the North Pole; to its credit, a late, contrived twist does attempt to remedy this, but, for much of the runtime, this feels like the odd story out. The remaining story involving the family’s harrowing ordeal involving their son at least fits in a bit better, though the Christmas trimming is just that: mere decoration and an inciting incident more than anything, as it dives into some other folk mythology to explain its bizarre events
More disconcerting than this, however, is that the film’s freeform structure exacerbates how dull these lesser segments are. The zombie story especially acts as a microcosm for how frustrating A Christmas Horror Story can be: all the elements for a minor splat-stick classic are here, but it never quite comes alive with the outrageous verve needed to make it work. Instead, it’s content to stand pat with its outlandish premise and trudge through it dutifully. Likewise, the Christmas tree tale has its moments of impish fun (the disturbed child suddenly takes interest in peeping on his mom, for example), yet it never finds the right gear since it has to constantly cede to the other stories. At times, the editing rhythm becomes so jagged that it’s easy to forget about the more forgettable stories—it seems like the film goes long stretches without dropping in on some segments, thus robbing them of their momentum.
Ultimately, even the two superior stories suffer from being crammed in with their company, as enduring the lesser half just to see how they play out is like being a child at Christmas who has to dig through a mountain of clothes just to arrive at the more exciting presents. I’d be interested to see how A Christmas Horror Story might work if the segments were allowed to play out separately; I can only imagine they’d improve, as there is a nice collection of wacky ingredients between the inspired bursts of practical gore, the twisted creature designs, and the wicked sense of humor. It’s just too bad they’re mixed too haphazardly and come out looking like my recent attempt at making a holiday roll cake: you can see the good intentions and how it might add up to something worthwhile, but it just doesn’t quite come together.
Comparing A Christmas Horror Story to a fruitcake here seems even more obvious and apt, but I won’t go that far; rather, it’s more like a nice pair of socks at under the tree—it’s perfectly functional and fills a void for a Christmas horror anthology, yet it’s not exactly something to be excited about.
A Christmas Horror Storyis now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Image Entertainment and features a 15-minute behind-the-scenes supplement.
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