Christmas Horror Story, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/12/15 13:40:03

"Santa versus zombie elves overshadows some other good bits."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Planning and constructing "A Christmas Horror Story" must have been a heck of a thing, because despite the indefinite article in the title, it's actually several stories, each handled by different directors and intercut rather than presented one after another anthology-style. It's begging to wind up a mess, but instead becomes a solidly-entertaining piece of work. Maybe not a holiday classic outside of very specific circles, but great for a break if the barrage of enforced good cheer becomes too much.

Our host for this Christmas Eve is DJ "Dangerous" Dan (William Shatner), pulling a double shift and loading up the egg nog to make the day a little more festive for the town of Bailey Downs, which aside from the werewolf issues it had during the Ginger Snaps films is also facing the one-year anniversary of two students killed in grisly fashion, their murders still unsolved. Molly Simon (Zoe De Grand Maison) thinks combining that with the spooky history of the former convent where it took place would make a great Media Arts project, so she breaks in with her classmates Dylan (Shannon Kook) operating the camera and Ben (Alex Ozerov) recording sound. Dylan's sticky-fingered girlfriend Caprice (Amy Forsyth) got them the keys, but she's off on a surprise family trip with her parents (Jeff Clarke & Michelle Nolden) and little brother Duncan (Percy Hynes-Whyte) to see their wealthy but reclusive great-aunt Etta, who kicks them out after Duncan breaks a porcelain Krampus figurine. Elsewhere in Bailey Downs, the policeman on the scene at last year's murder (Adrian Holmes) is ignoring some "No Trespassing" signs to cut down the perfect Christmas tree when his son runs off for a second and doesn't seem right afterward.

Meanwhile, at the North Pole, one of the elves attacks Santa (George Buza) before hacking his own hand off with a hatchet and dying. Everyone is horrified because elves are almost never violent, and they can't die. But maybe they can become undead.

That last one is a clear outlier, but in a way, it's what makes all the others work. The Bailey Downs-set stories are not necessarily slow burns - the one in the school basement keeps pretty active whereas the car broken down on the way back from Aunt Etta's kind of disappears as it has little to do for a while - but in broad strokes, they're sort of following the same arc, and seeing the same stage of the story repeated in rapid succession would be boring. Any time that threatens to happen, though, they cut to the North Pole or the radio station, where the absurd elf-slaying action or the DJ seeming a bit more off as the liquor in his nog varies the atmosphere a bit.

These segments being change-of-pace bits give their stars plenty of chances to shine, with George Buza making one of the more memorable on-screen Santas - he's capable of being a gruff ass-kicker as the situation arises (and has the weapons to do it with), but what makes him fun is that the filmmakers don't go fully revisionist with him - there's a hint of astonishment in his voice at every horror that presents itself, because he's Santa Claus and still expects the world, especially his corner, to be a happy place. Shatner, meanwhile, is Shatner, which is a better thing than it's often stereotyped as being: While he's still having a lot of fun playing the guy who is past caring all that much about decorum, there's a sadness that comes out of his comic relief, the sort of melancholy that only someone who lives in a town where horror movie stuff happens on a regular basis can understand.

The other segments are more straight-ahead horror that take themselves fairly seriously rather than get jokey, although none of them quite cohere perfectly the way that the bit at the North Pole does. In the basement, for instance, there's some good jumps and nice performances by young actors who show their characters as believably over their heads but able to surprise a bit - Zoe De Grand'Maison (best known for Orphan Black) stretches from pushy to guilty in a really pleasing way - but the occasional jumps to first-person stuff seem a little too frantic. The family freeing from Krampus is okay, and as with Grand'Maison, 19-year-old Amy Forsyth is the best part as the teenager who's not as sure as she'd like to be that she's basically good despite the occasional stealing. The monster is brawny and effective, although the creepy folks at the manor are underused - why is Julian Richings even in this movie if that's all he's got to do? There's genuine tension to the creepy-kid story, even if changelings don't seem particularly Christmas-y and bits seem fairly arbitrary.

For being made by three directors and four (credited) writers, it winds up being a remarkably coherent picture. Part of this is likely that they are using basically the same crew and have all worked together in some capacity before; it ties the movie together. With a fair number of different types of supernatural threat, it's impressive how well-designed everything is, creepy and part of the same world without being repetitive. After going for the gross and nasty in most elements, they seem to have a great deal of fun with the elaborate (and surprisingly clever) world of the North Pole.

It's pretty neat all around. In some ways, it can seem a sort of weakness that the more traditionally horrific segements don't measure up to the comic-relief one, but even that is handled in clever fashion. This probably won't become an every-Christmas sort of movie, but I could certainly see myself breaking it out in December.

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