Tuesday, December 4, 2018

December to Dismember: ONCE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS (2017)

Although Krampus appears to be the demon du jour, Santa Claus has always been the OG Christmas horror baddie. Going back to TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), the idea of a killer donning the look of kindly Kris Kringle has always been cinema gold. It was later mined to perfection with the films like CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980) and the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT series. It is such a surefire combo of good and evil that it is pretty hard to screw up. Well, ladies and gentlemen, meet ONCE UP A TIME AT CHRISTMAS, a Canada-England co-production that fails to live up to its potential. In fact, it is so dumb that Trump is currently considering imposing “yuge” movie tariffs on the respective countries. Bad movie! Sad!

The film opens with a psycho chick (Sayla Vee, doing a really bad Harley Quinn impersonation) in a jail cell guarded by Deputy Fullard (Jeff Ellenberger). She wonders when “daddy” is going to come save her and Fullard mentions the only thing she and her killer beau are getting for Christmas is the chair. We then cut to nearly two weeks earlier, which leads me to wonder why the filmmakers would spoil their own ending in the opening minutes. Anyway, we are back to December 14th in the town of Woodridge, New York, where killer Santa (Simon Phillips) and his psycho Mrs. Claus (Vee) murder a mall Santa in the mall parking lot. It isn’t just a case of professional rivalry as they leave behind a pear with his corpse to send a message. To establish how dumb this film is early on, a major plot point is Sheriff Mitchell (Barry Kennedy) thinking this is an apple. Apparently fruit classification and identification needs to be more rigorous at the police academy.

The story proper begins with Jennifer (Laurel Brady) waking up to her parents screaming at each other. As if her parents getting divorced right before Christmas isn’t bad enough, she also works at the local mall as one of Santa’s elves (“My mom thought it would take my mind off things,” she says). Her peer group isn’t helping as bestie Courtney (Susannah Mackay) is focused on the size of men’s genitals and her boyfriend Dave (Eric Welch) is planning a Christmas Eve party called “Drumfest” at a local bar. Jeez, maybe mom was right to get her that job? While all of this teenage drama is happening, our deadly duo is traipsing around town killing folks every day. We had the murder on the 14th; a couple of necking kids torched in their car on the 15th; and a lawyer, her daughter and their dog murdered on the 16th.

The couple immolation leads to an amazing dialogue scene where Jennifer finds out one of the victims was her ex-boyfriend. I present it in all its glory for you to wonder how this exchange made it past everyone on the production.

Courtney: Did you, um, did you hear about Troy? 
Jennifer: No. 
Courtney: He died last night...in an accident...with Michelle Weaver. 
Jennifer: Oh my God. 
Courtney: Did you guys, um, did you guys like do it? 
Jennifer: No! We only went out for like three weeks. 
Courtney: It’s fine. In like three weeks I totally 
would have fucked him like thirty times. 
Jennifer: Well, I didn’t really like him that much. 
Courtney: Who said anything about liking him? 
Jennifer: What kind of accident? 
Courtney: I don’t really know. 
Jennifer: I hope his family is okay. 

Perhaps as punishment for her social skills, Courtney is the next target for the killers on the 17th. They corner her and four random friends in a bathroom bar where the killers leave Courtney alive as the lone witness. With multiple murders on his hands, Sheriff Mitchell finally thinks it is time to call in the Feds. Three murders (they don’t know about the family killing yet) in town? No sweat. Seven murders? Hey, it is time for some help. The FBI sends in five agents, but they don’t prove to be much help as they refuse to go out to search for suspects (“Between the training experience myself and the other agents have, us doing grunt work would be a poor use of our time.”). Maybe the FBI sent the B team as these agents are all later massacred on the 18th in the span of 30 seconds. Seriously, in a nice single take, one agent leaves the room to get coffee and comes back seconds later to find his partners all dead without any sound of a struggle before he is killed. Christmas killers be good! As the coroner later states, the murderers absconded with all of their ring fingers and wedding bands. This leads to the first of several news breaks where an onscreen anchorwoman brings the audience up to speed. Gotta admit, this line had me howling: “With the latest massacre of five FBI agents, there is now a feeling amongst the residents that the Sheriff’s department is overwhelmed with the situation.” 

Viewers will soon crack the code of these seemingly random murders long before the characters when a farmer calls in to report his geese were poisoned. Now here is the perfect encapsulation of how stupid this film is. When Fullard mentions the farmer’s call, the Sheriff understandably says, “Is this guy for real? Take a fucking number.” Yes, understandable that multiple murders would take precedence over some dead geese. So what does the film do? Cuts to Fullard out on the farm taking a report on the dead geese! Something must have truly been afoul (ah, boo yourself). Fuller counts the number of dead geese and comments, “Six geese.” Shocked they didn’t have him say, “Six geese a laying!” Yes, the killers are killing daily to the tune of the “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol. Don’t worry, you only have to wait another half hour for the scene where the Sheriff and his deputy put it all together in hilarious fashion.

With cops this inept, it is no surprise Jennifer and Courtney decide to get to the bottom of these murders. Oh wait, they’re just as lazy as they just sit on the couch and Google it. This leads to a whopper of a line that had me howling again. Frustrated with their lack of results, Courtney says, “Have you tried searching your parents?” Excuse me, what? So if you can’t find any clues to a series of random murders it is best to just Google your family? I guess it works in this world because Jennifer soon finds out her mom was once involved with British military Sgt. Nicholas Conway and he has a connection to her family. Who needs a complicated scene of revealing intrigue and investigation where Jennifer perhaps finds something in her mother’s belongings when she can just Google-stumble upon their family’s hidden secret.

And since Christmas is the time of giving, I’m going to reveal that secret to you. Apparently Conway served in the second Iraq war and was married to Jennifer’s mother and is her real father. He went nutzo around Christmas when the wife asked for a divorce and was sent to an insane asylum. Of course, he died there in a fire a few years back...or so they thought! Yup, he’s back in town with his deranged female sidekick and staging these elaborate murders as a grand plan to win over his daughter. He succeeds in successfully kidnapping mom and bringing her to “Drumfest” all tied up. Yes, in the middle of total chaos erupting all over town and finding out her dad is a PTSD psycho, Jennifer and Courtney still made it to the party. Super slow Sheriff Mitchell and Deputy Fullard finally put it all together and show up mid-massacre in time to arrest Mrs. Claus. In another howler, Mitchell utters what is perhaps my favorite dumb line in a film filled with dumber-than-dumb lines as he yells “call for backup!” as they arrive. Yes, they figured out the plan of the killers and sped to the destination, but only opted to decide to call for backup while once on the scene. Again, ladies and gentlemen, meet ONCE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS.

I’m not sure if I should start with the naughty or nice list regarding this film. Okay, we’ll be kind and start with the nice. Simon Phillips is actually good as the scarred Santa, doing the appropriate cackling and cutting an imposing figure. Unfortunately, such menace vanishes when he finally reunites his family and we see he is shorter than his daughter. Oof! Director Paul Tanter is an independent British filmmaker and primarily made his name with a trilogy of UK crime films starting with THE RISE AND FALL OF A WHITE COLLAR HOOLIGAN (2012), which co-star Phillips. According to IMDb, he had 12 features under his belt before tackling the Xmas horror genre. Now here is the thing that is so disappointing about this film - Tanter is actually a talented director. Not only does he deliver a slick looking film with some pretty interesting camera shots, but Tanter fills the frames with Christmas atmosphere. He completely uses the snow-covered Canadian shooting environs to the film’s benefit and packs the frame with Christmas mood. In the day of some folks not even bothering to throw up any decorations or snow in their Christmas movies, it is nice to see the proper holiday ambience created. Tanter, I’m giving you points for that.

Unfortunately, now I have to take all your points away. Any positives garnered by the polished product are completely undermined by one of the dumbest screenplays I’ve encountered in our Xmas film run (“Son, you ain’t seen nothing,” Tom cries). Screenwriter Christopher Jolley is another UK indie guy and he steadfastly refuses to live up to his last name as this script is just miserable. There were plenty of aforementioned examples of stupidity and even more I could provide as it is just filled with underdeveloped relationships. For example, there is supposed to be a big emotional scene during the finale where Jennifer’s boyfriend tells her he loves her. But since their relationship consisted of one scene at the mall, why would viewers care? Then there is a bit where Santa/Conway gives the obligatory rambling speech and mutters how when you kill for Uncle Sam they call you a hero. Yes, the guy they established as a BRITISH military guy was killing for Uncle Sam! I can hear the filmmakers arguing that he was fighting in a U.S.-led war. Zip it, Jolley! I ain’t having it. Film law dictates he must say he is “fighting for Queen and country.” No excuses. Then there is the plan of the killers. How on Earth could they even plan this? What are the odds the mall Santa would have the last name Partridge? Was it just luck they found two kids necking at Turtle Dove park (“Two Turtle Doves!”) or that the divorce attorney being named Frenchen (“Three French Hens!”)? How did they know Courtney would go to the bar with exactly four friends (“Four calling birds!”)? How would they know the FBI would send five agents and all the agents would be married (“Five golden rings!”)? Such lapses mar the film beyond the point of reconciliation, astonishingly taking what could have been a diamond in the rough and turned it back into a piece of coal. IMDb has TWICE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS listed as being in pre-production. Hopefully this one gets made and centers around the Sheriff learning what a pear is. Sorry, I’ll never get over that. Tanter, if you’re reading this, send me the script and I’ll help you spot any glaring plot holes and terrible dialogue. Bah humbug!

1 Reactions:

  1. These cops were probably the stupidest movie cops I've ever seen. It took them until like "Day 10" to realize the murders are based on The 12 Days Of Christmas. Even Chief Wiggum would have figured this out by Day 5 at the latest.


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