Friday, December 11, 2015

December to Dismember: A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2015)

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear? Not one, but two great Christmas horror movies in just this one year!

You know how every year you sit around the yule log, trying to avoid going into epileptic seizures from the Christmas lights and wishing that Santa would bring you a Canadian tax shelter horror movie like back in the '80s? What? Am I the only one? Regardless, those wishes have come true this year. Not only do we get a big budget Charles Band movie with KRAMPUS (2015), but now we have a slickly produced, and much more subversive, anthology from the jolly old elves with the Canadian government.

Three interwoven tales comprise this anthology with the wrap-around "host" of Christmas-lovin' DJ Dangerous Dan (played to perfection by William Shatner in a surprisingly nice hairpiece). Dangerous Dan is hosting a string of Christmas carols while rambling about how great the Season is while spiking his egg nog with some Christmas spirits. He is also dealing with a bitter and angry weatherman Stormin' Norman (George Buza), who is going down to the local mall to cover some local color, but isn't terribly happy about it.

On Christmas eve, we three teens (who are not very wise), decide to investigate the brutal, ritualistic murder that took place at a boarding school one year ago to the day. After watching a secret police video that shows an officer Peters (Adrian Holmes) doing a walk-through of the crime scene, complete with a crucified male corpse, a hanging female and a cryptic bible passage written in blood on the wall. Since the video was taken Peters has been on leave and the trio decide that they need to sneak in and make an investigative video talking about the still unsolved crime. As it turns out, the school was once a catholic nunnery that took in girls who got pregnant out of wedlock. One notorious case was of a girl who died a horrible death after attempting an abortion. After stumbling across what appears to be Joe Spinell's idea of a nativity scene, comprised of crudely made-up mannequins, the group find themselves locked in and slowly starting to go mad. Or is it a malevolent spirit of Christmas trying to manipulate them?

Meanwhile, that same night, officer Peters, his wife Kim (Oluniké Adeliyi) and son Will (Orion John) decide to go out to the woodside and poach a Christmas tree (hey, you can poach animals, why not trees?). Presumably this is due to the fact that Dad has been out of work for a year after hearing voices at last year's crime scene.

While the folks cut down a tree, 8 year old Will hides in a hollow tree trunk and when he comes out, he seems... different. The first clue is that Will is really grumpy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Christmas dinner consists of spaghetti and meatballs. Seriously, who does that? Oh yeah, the cop who has been out of work because he lost some of his marbles at a crime scene. Fair enough. As the evening goes on things get worse. Will stabs dad in the hand with a fork and checks out mom while she showers (ok, all at once - eeeeeewwww!). Out of nowhere Kim gets a call from a strange old man who tells her that her son is not her son and that things are about to get worse if she doesn't bring the boy back to the grove. Thinking the guy is a fruit cake (yeah, yeah, boo!), it takes some seriously bloody shit for her to start believing that the old codger might be right.

Also meanwhile on that same night, a family of entitled, upper-middle class assholes lead by dad Taylor (Jeff Clarke), head out in a snowstorm to make a four hour trek to visit his estranged aunt Edna (Corinne Conley is excellent old age make-up), who nobody likes. She of course reciprocates this sentiment and is not thrilled to see them show up on her doorstep. Once inside, 12 year old brat Duncan (Percy Hynes-White) intentionally smashes a figurine of Krampus, which causes them to get kicked out of the house where they discover what happens to bad families on Christmas.

Running throughout these intertwined tales is a tale about Santa (George Buza) who is having a problem with the elves. Seems there is an infection spreading throughout the north pole turning happy little elves into demonic imps who refuse to eat cookies and instead want to nosh on flesh. And who can blame them? Santa is remarkably well marbled. Santa has had just about enough of this crap and, with staff in hand, finds himself engaged in a bloody battle to not only rid the workshop of the possessed workers, but save his own skin too. This culminates with a kischy, but not too over the top battle with Krampus himself. So yes, the cover does not lie, in case you were wondering. This also leads to a great twist ending, but I'm trying to keep this as spoiler free as possible. The camerawork and sets for this story in particular are very stylish and surprising for a DTV movie, and even more surprising is that this entry was directed by by Steven Hoban, who has been known for producing, not directing, genre films such as the well-received sci-fi / horror drama SPLICE (2009).

With three different directors (Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan), five writers and stories that overlap characters, things are kept far more interesting than they would have been if they were all padded out to separate films. Matter of fact I'm really surprised that they weren't made into separate films because considering the DTV stuff that's been coming out these days, seemingly even the thinnest of premises can be stretched out to feature length. Because the stories are intertwined, that means that, aside from driving Shane Bitterling crazy, you get all of the endings to all of the stories in the last 20 minutes or so of the film. This mechanic is particularly satisfying as if one of the stories has a weak ending. If you don't like one, there are still three others and one of them, again no spoilers, is pretty damn awesome.

CHRISTMAS HORROR is surprisingly good for a direct to video genre release, particularly when lesser films (how many PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have their been?) get full, nationwide releases here in the US. Fortunately CHRISTMAS HORROR received publicity that money can't buy. Walmart, in an effort to appeal to their trailer-trash base, would only carry the movie if it were called "A HOLIDAY HORROR STORY". That's right, fearful of the folks who would be furious about a movie that defiles the baby Jesus' fictional birthday, they ironically perpetuated the alleged War on Christmas by replacing the offending word in the title, substituting another word that would give Fox anchors aneurysms. Of course the people who buy horror videos don't give a crap about any of that political rhetoric and mercilessly derided Walmart's fumbling attempt at censorship. The big upside of this is that maybe the extra sales will spur on more quality indy films from Canada Film Capitol. And more drunk Shatner. Definitely more drunk Shatner.

While one story feels like an episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, it makes up for its few faults with solid, straight-faced performances from all concerned, plus stand-out performances by George Buza and William Shanter, who is genuinely funny as Dangerous Dan, whose only real danger is embarassing himself on live radio. Stay tuned when the credits roll, as we get some extra footage of Dan attempting to respond to listener calls into the station.

Perhaps my expectations were extra low due to KRAMPUS THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL (2013), but the nice production values, solid acting and lots of practical effects (and Shatner) won me over. Maybe I wasn't so naughty this year after all.

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