Tuesday, December 22, 2020

December to Dismember: LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS (2020)

[by William S. Wilson]

The television Christmas movie industry is blowing up bigger than Santa Claus after he eats all the cookies left for him. The hands down champ is the Christmas movie factory that is the Hallmark Channel. In the year 2000, Hallmark debuted its first holiday original with THE CHRISTMAS SECRET (2000) starring Richard Thomas and Beau Bridges. Who knew that film was a pioneer? In the year 2020, Hallmark is debuting...I kid you not...forty brand new original Christmas movies. FORTY! It created a schedule so overloaded that they started airing them in late October. OCTOBER! Yes, they’ve turned into the television equivalent of your local pharmacy chain putting the Xmas stuff out early. With such a plethora of products, it is surprising that we haven’t yet seen a spoof of these formulaic “grumpy person discovers love via Christmas” scenarios. It is also surprising no one has not done a horror version of them yet. Well, both bases have now been covered with the SyFy channel original LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS (2020) and, in the most surprising news of all, it is entertaining as hell.

The film opens in the Christmas-loving town of Ornaments as the Winters family is at a “Letters to Santa Claus” event. Young Holly demands her parents buy her Barbie...er, Darby Dream Car for Christmas, but they can’t because dad lost his job at the tree factory and mom can’t do ice sculpture due to a broken arm. HA! Bratty Holly heads off in a huff and writes Santa the following letter: “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is for my parents to go away. Can you make that happen? Love, Holly” Glad she added that love part in there to show she is the warm type when asking for her parents to disappear. Unfortunately, this simple act created something terrifying for her family. Cut to 22 years later and the grown up Holly Winters is a changed woman because she now goes by Holly Frost (Karen Knox) and is an investigative reporter for a TV station. With visions of lead anchor dancing in her head, Holly accepts a Christmas assignment from her demanding boss. The bad news? It involves returning to her hometown of Ornaments to cover the 75th anniversary of their Festival of Christmas Wonder.

With her hunky cameraman Sam (Franco Lo Presti) in tow, Holly makes the trek back home. In Hallmark tradition, she runs into in quick succession: her old gay bestie, the lone black family, her old rival who is now mayor (named Danica, which is hilarious if you know Hallmark), and her old flame Chris Pringle (Joseph Cannata). Per Hallmark Christmas Resolution 420, Holly finds out Chris is recently single after the death of his wife. This fact is relayed in the following hilarious dialogue:

Danica: "Chris has gone through a lot recently. He just lost his wife."
Holly: "Hopefully not to...cancer."
Danica: "Hot air balloon."
Holly: "Like it caught on fire?"
Danica (incredulous): "No, one fell on her."

Unable to secure a hotel room in town, Holly resorts to the worst case scenario and opts to stay with her sister Cookie (Perrie Voss). This is tough for Holly outside of the normal holiday family strains because of the tragedy in this house all those years ago. As the audience soon finds out, when Holly wrote that letter to Santa, she accidentally misspelled his name and addressed it to Satan. Always a fan of written correspondence, Satan made Holly’s wish come true and delivered presents that Christmas morning containing the severed body parts of her parents. Yikes! And you thought getting underwear was the ultimate Xmas morning betrayal. Naturally, such a traumatic experience has shaped Holly into the sarcastic, drunk Christmas-hating ice queen she is. Imbued with more than Christmas spirits, Holly decides at the “Letters to Santa” event to write Satan a new letter telling him to screw off. Bad move as Satan gets it and decides to return to Ornaments to get his revenge.

Remember on Christmas morning when you got that unexpected present and were like, “Whoa! I didn’t know that I wanted this but it is very cool.” That is how I felt watching this. I’ve had an odd relationship with SyFy Originals...an abusive one. I’ve never seen a SHARKNADO flick and it seems like 90% of the ones I’ve seen follow that “haha, we dumb” cookie cutter pattern. In the same breath, I’ve seen SANTA JAWS (2018). So I had some trepidation going into this one. However, the real key here to enjoying this movie has less to do with SyFy and more to with the Hallmark Channel. If you have seen any of their Christmas films (confession: I’ve seen about a dozen), you will probably delight at how Michael Zara’s script pokes fun at all of the cliches. From the “busy city girl returns to small town” scenario to the “she finds love in her cold heart” ending, it hits every mark. Even the character names are in jokes as we have the aforementioned Danica, Aunt Becky, Candace, and Cameron. The filmmakers paid super close attention to the template, resulting in some genuine laughs. For example, there was one bit at the end involving the gay friend and his prospective partner that had me dying at just how Hallmark-y it was. There are even some non-Hallmark moments that made me laugh, like a running joke about “teenage vaping hooligans” and the bit where Holly declares her love for Christmas and says, “I believe in snowmen, snowwomen, snowTHEYS!” My personal favorite was toward the end where the Sheriff arrests Holly on the suspicion of her being the killer. Right after she says she wants a lawyer, Chris enters the scene triumphantly and says, “You’ve got one! (pauses for dramatic music) Passed the bar last fall.” It feels like a moment right out a AIRPLANE or NAKED GUN film.

Intrinsic to making this work is a cast that is totally game. Everyone is on the same wavelength for what they are doing. The standout is the lead Karen Knox as the cynical Holly Winters/Frost. Not only does she have great delivery of her lines, but she is gifted with her comedic mannerisms and facial expressions. She totally Knox it out of the park. Ah, boo yourself! There is actually a scene about 20 minutes into the film where she writes her second letter to Satan and licks the envelope in the most awkward way while staring at the random guy next to her. It is a total throwaway gag, but actually sold me on the film’s comedic tone. Yes, when it comes to comedy I’m all about pushing the envelope licking skills. Also responsible for the film’s success is director Emma Jean Sutherland. She worked as a First AD on several Christmas TV movies and you can clearly see she paid attention. The mise-en-scene is positively overflowing with Christmas stuff as every frame bursts with decorations and lights and the music is pitch perfect. If I had any gripe, it might be that the production didn’t really have the necessary funds to do the big showdown it deserved. Instead, Satan - which is a very cool design by The Butcher Shop FX Studio - just kinda shows up on stage and gets blow’d up by CGI effects. A minor quibble that didn’t keep me from enjoying the film. If you have a Hallmark-loving heart but dig the occasional severed limb, LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS might just be the perfect gift to find under your tree this year. Spiked eggnog is optional. 

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