Ed. note– Okay, so maybe I’m a little soft because it’s Christmas week. I gave you a FRIDAY THE 13TH retrospective on Christmas Eve, so as you get comfy in those new Christmas pajamas and try to take off the “Santa 15,” here’s a horror anthology review for you. Come for the kick ass Santa, and stay for the kick ass Santa.– P.F.
Horror filmmakers tend to follow trends, and with the success of TRICK ‘R TREAT a few years ago, the holiday horror anthology is suddenly in vogue. Recent arrivals TALES OF HALLOWEEN and HOLIDAYS jumped on the wagon, and last year, to make sure Christmas was not left out, A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY followed suit. It’s an uneven mix that won’t qualify as a yearly classic, but has just enough going for it to make it passable entertainment.
Four stories comprise the anthology, three of which are clearly interconnected and take place in the fictional Bailey Downs; the fourth takes place at the North Pole in Santa’s village. There’s a through-line with William Shatner playing oddball DJ Dangerous Dan who loves Christmas, which adds a little levity to what is a very dark quartet of tales. But even his segments are tainted by the cynicism of those around him, and later in the film, they grow dark as he continues to tell the people of Bailey Downs to avoid the mall.
Before I get to the stories themselves, I need to mention the flick’s structure. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever seen an anthology where the segments aren’t self-contained blocks. Instead, the filmmakers and editor chose to cut from one story to the next, and so on, so the audience is watching the tale about the haunted high school, then the one about Krampus, then Santa’s North Pole escapades, and then back to the high school. This defeats the whole idea of an anthology, in which each story is designed to be compact, so the viewer can get in, enjoy the piece and learn the lesson, and then get out and on to the next. The way CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY does it, there are long gaps where I had to wait to get back to what was going on, sometimes at key moments in one of the stories. I always applaud the effort to try something different, but I can’t applaud the result, which is unnecessarily choppy.
The flick does manage to connect all the stories through their characters. I liked this, even though they’re mostly tangential setups, because it made me feel that I was dealing with a real town, in which all the folks suffering through these horrors had a combined set of stakes. That, and this town was having one extremely screwed up Christmas.
As for the stories, we have:
“Teens in the Haunted School,” about three dumb teens who want to make their own Youtube sensation about their very demented high school, which hosted some very weird experiments years ago, and a double teen homicide a year ago to the date. There’s all sorts of religious ideology, Bible quotes, and the suggestion of a different sort of virgin birth. I used to teach high school, and in my youth and earlier adulthood I was very religious, so I should’ve eaten up this one. But the teens are drab, and even worse dumb, and the story has all the iconography to be really scary, but it’s atonal, and never really gets any deeper than surface level creepy.
At least the teens in the high school seem nice enough. In contrast, every character save the butler in “Krampus in the Woods” falls under the Law of Annoying Characters’ Pleasing Deaths. It’s astronomically rare that a law would cover every character in a story (and even rarer when only the butler doesn’t), but the family headed over the river to the aunt’s house they go is a collection of scum. The father is a loser trying to push a ponzi scheme on his aunt; the wife is a shrew with a snarky comment for everything her husband does (that must be one fun bedroom they share), and just about everything else, come to think about it; the daughter of this supposedly rich family is a klepto. And then there’s the son. When the butler tells the kid to be careful with the Krampus figurine, this spoiled brat intentionally knocks the thing off the table and breaks it. Even the put-upon aunt seems harsh without any real provocation, but I really wanted her dead just because she’s played by a lousy actress. The butler, though, he’s the man. And he’s played by the actor who was the janitor in URBAN LEGEND (hey, I never said “It’s never the butler”). Oh, and there’s Krampus. For this mythical monster that got so much play last Christmas season, he’s not lackluster here. His look isn’t so bad, but he doesn’t do much to impress as a monster. Not in this story, anyway.
“Krampus in the Woods” shows a backbiting family, and “Changeling” shows a broken family of a different type. When parents trespass into woods to cut a fresh Christmas tree, they come back with something that isn’t exactly their son. The father is the cop who discovered the two dead kids in the school, and it has destroyed him. His wife is leery of his acts, which complicates things when all he wants is to make this Christmas special for she and their son. I really liked this one, probably because of my own dysfunctional family. The kid gets sufficiently creepy (and likes his pasta), and the family seems real enough. I feel really bad for the father, who tries to do the right thing, but he’s such a mess that he even fails at trying to make things right. He’s also a strong Black male, and I’ve appreciated them in horror since Romero introduced me to Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. If there’s one thing I don’t dig about the tale, it’s the ending. “Changeling” sets the stage for a much darker closing, but then goes soft and ends on a higher note than it deserves. As a guy whose favorite horror films mostly end badly for the heroes, I would’ve appreciate the apple cart not being restored (hey, didn’t I just mention loving NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?).
The best of the quartet by far is “Santa vs. Zombie Elves.” Santa’s jolly and ready to go about his yearly business, when a sick zombie gets pissed off over cookies, chops his own hand with an axe, and then dies. Look at the title, and you’ll understand he and his brethren don’t stay that way. After the flick’s opening credits, we’re introduced to an ass kicking Santa who’s obviously survived the elf battles, and is ready for a competitor on his level. That Santa rules. I usually hate the way films portray Claus (he’s a grade A d-bag in RUDOLPH, and a sick, whiny bastard in YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS). This Santa, though… this Santa was made for me. He’s a battle scarred warrior, a gentle guy who loves his wife and his work but is ready for Mortal Kombat when the fight calls him. And wouldn’t you know, there’s a hungry fighter right in his neck of the woods.
Santa is also the key figure in A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY’s ending, and here’s where this flick is going to divide a lot of horror fans. As his segment progressed, I noticed that Santa’s castle and workplace got shabbier. Why did he have hundreds of workers in the reveal of his factory, but only six or eight make up the undead army? Why does it look toward the end like his “factory” is akin to the employees only areas of a WalMart? First watch, I attributed it to budgetary issues (they blew their wad on the opening credit snowflakes and the money shot of Santa’s castle). But then that Shock Ending hit, and it all made sense. And I loved it. The ending is satisfying, and makes perfect sense within the context of the flick. It also took a set of stones for the creators to go dark, especially by way of jolly ol’ St. Nick. I love where this flick went, but hey, I did tell you I love my dark endings.
A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY isn’t for everyone. It’s not even for me, as it’s too uneven and there’s the weird structure. It’s not going to make my perennial holiday viewing list alongside THE BEAR WHO SLEPT THROUGH CHRISTMAS, and it’s probably not going to make yours either. But in a genre where the holiday anthology has become a trend, you could do worse. And I know for a fact that KRAMPUS does not have an ass kicking Santa. Hey, I gotta take my kick ass Santa where I can get him.