Monday, December 28, 2020

December to Dismember: THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS (2019)

[by William S. Wilson] 

As we close out our Christmas 2020 reviews, I’m actually coming to a film I was looking forward to. THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a sequel to ONCE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS (2017), which I reviewed a few years back. The story of a sadistic Santa Claus and his missus terrorizing a small town, the original was a combination of naughty and nice. I praised director Paul Tanter for his direction and lead Simon Phillips for his scarred Santa. Unfortunately, it was a slick film built around a script dumber than a stocking full of coal. The sequel - originally announced with the title TWICE UPON A TIME AT CHRISTMAS - arrives a couple years later and guess what? It is twice as good technically and twice as dumb storywise. Hold on to yer Santa hats, this is gonna be a good one.

The film opens with a “four years ago” card as we see the killer Santa/Nicholas Conway (Phillips) and Mrs. Claus/Michelle Weaver (Sayla de Goede) pull off their fiery escape from a mental hospital referenced in the first film. Cut to present day New York City where one of the survivors of the first film, Courtney (Keegan Chambers), has spent the last year hanging out in the city. Her father Jim Beaudin (Michael Coughlan) shows up and begs for her to come back home. On his way back to Woodridge, Jim gets distracted by a malfunctioning radio just as Santa stands in the middle of the road with his axe. Damn, psycho Santa has great timing! Naturally, Jim crashes his car and gets stalked in the woods. Before Santa offs Jim, he states that nothing brings a family back together more than a funeral. Ah, so Santa plans to flush out his estranged daughter Jennifer by killing those sorta-close to her. Genius? Cut to the next day as local law enforcement are examining the scene. They figure it was a drunk driving accident, but that changes when FBI agent Natalie Parker (Kate Schroder) arrives on the scene. She feels it is the work of Santa/Conway and gets her suspicions confirmed when she finds the word “naughty” written in the snow in blood. Somehow every other cop on the scene managed to miss this despite obvious footprints leading to this area.

We now catch up with the sullen Jennifer (Shannon Cotter), who is in witness protection. Her mom breaks the news to her that her best friend’s dad died via this howler: “Jim Beaudin was killed in a car accident. You know what the roads are like around here and he did like to drink.” Jennifer rightly refuses to attend a funeral related to her hometown Christmas massacre, so her mother guilt shames her by saying, “When your stepfather died the same day as Courtney’s boyfriend, Courtney still showed up to Frank’s funeral. Maybe this isn’t about what you want or what you can do?” Yes, your psychotic ex is still on the loose, so let’s attend a very public event. Thanks, mom. Meanwhile, Santa and Mrs. Claus visit Dr. Monica Mudd (Jennifer Willis), the psychiatrist who treated them in the asylum. During their torture of Dr. Mudd, she screams that her daughter Becky (Anne-Carolyne Binette) will be home soon. The film immediately cuts to Becky walking into a bedroom and having a flashlight blind her. Since this film doesn’t take place in a world where humans act normal, her response to this is immediately start a striptease. What!? After getting topless (yay!) she sees her boyfriend dead and Santa bites her throat after demanding she use the safe word “bite me.” Uh, yeah.

So Jennifer and her mom are leaving for the funeral. However, their plan of paying respect gets sidelined by the FBI when agent Jack Zimmerman (Marc Gammal) shows up to warn about Santa showing up and we get the following amazing exchange.

Jack: “Lucy McCay?”
Mom: “Who are you?”
Jack: “I’m Agent Jack Zimmerman, FBI.”
Mom: “How the hell did you get in here?”
Jack: “We have access. It’s a safe house.”

Yep, pretty sure FBI protocol involves surprising people in witness protection with agents they never met and not calling them in advance or anything. The FBI was right as Mrs. Claus shows up at the funeral where she is caught and the agents begin a multi-car chase as Santa pulls away in a Mustang after being spotted. Just kidding, they send one car after him. When the car is finally stopped, they find out it is Dr. Mudd at the wheel with “nice” carved in her head. Damn, hoodwinked by Santa! This results in my favorite exchange of the film, which I like to imagine is how it would sound if I met the filmmakers.

Zimmerman/me: “It doesn’t make sense.”
Parker/filmmakers: “Yes, it does!”

Meanwhile, back at the church, it is completely empty and Santa kills the priest because we see a flashback of him molesting Mrs. Claus at the hospital. Whoa, whoa, whoa...hold on now. I can accept all this random craziness and overly complex plotting. But a priest who is into sexually molesting grown women? C’mon, Tanter, I can only suspend my disbelief so far.

Back at the local FBI headquarters, Parker decides to interrogate Mrs. Claus. This results in another moment that had me howling as Mrs. Claus is shown in her cell still in her Christmas outfit. Yes, in a cell wearing a leather choker, studded leather belt, and laced up stiletto heel boots. **sigh** 

She reveals that “daddy has a new plan” and he’s making a list. Parker begins her investigation and she first visits Sheriff Mitchell (Barry Kennedy). Yes, the sheriff from the first film who couldn’t properly identify a pear. I love this dude. He’s retired now to spend more time drinking, but Parker thinks he might have some insight into Santa’s current spree. She also visits the burned asylum, where a former orderly who now guards the place mentions he used to work with Jim Beaudin there and they used to beat the patients. Because, you know, that is what people reveal when you first meet them. Just like the first film, viewers will have guessed the motivation of the killers long before the lead characters do. Meanwhile, Santa stays busy by visiting Sheriff Mitchell (he poisoned his alcohol five minutes before showing up) and busts Mrs. Claus out of a FBI caravan (more on that in a bit). Oh, hey, remember Jennifer and Courtney? The filmmakers apparently did at this point as they are reintroduced and make a plan to catch Jennifer’s killer Santa father in a trap worthy of his own design. You know, super complicated and relying on random things coming together all at once.

Like I mentioned in my intro, I was actually looking forward to this one. I was intrigued to see where they took the characters and how the talented production team responded to criticism  thrown at the first film. I guess they didn’t read them. You know when you haven’t seen an old friend in a while and when you catch up you realize they haven’t changed at all? That is what it is like returning to the Tanter universe. I’ll be honest - these films drive me crazy. The entire production team busts their ass to make a good looking movie and I’ll admit it looks great with Tanter knowing when to effectively use slo-mo, drone shots and some clever transitions. But all of that is brought down by a screenplay so dumb that you start to question your sanity. Now the first film was overly complex and relied on too many coincidences, but it worked it with its own weird logic. This script, credited to Tanter and Phillips, presents scenarios that barely seem like human actions. For example, early on Parker mentions that our villains have rocketed on to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. First, it is hilarious to me these two have been trotting around for a year in the same outfits in the general area and not been spotted. Second, there is a scene that had me dying in regard to this. The FBI is transporting Mrs. Claus to a hospital as she claimed she swallowed some razor blades (don’t ask). On the way Santa has created a roadblock with a stalled car. When he emerges from the vehicle with his signature outfit and burned visage with metal teeth, the FBI agent in the first car radios to Parker, “Dispatch, we’ve got a pedestrian in the road.” WHAT!? You don’t recognize a serial killer Santa responsible for thirty murders on your top ten list? Wait, it gets better. When asked to describe the pedestrian, the FBI agent responds, “Describe?” WHAT!?!? Oh man, I am dying.

The whole film is filled with scenarios nuttier than a fruitcake. Another example: toward the end our evil duo end up attacking the executive board at Biocorp Security (spoiler: Their list of naughty and nice victims consists of people who worked at the asylum). No joke, the bloody killer Santa wielding an axe shows up at the meeting and throws the severed penis of a victim on the table. The CEO gags and then says, "This is a private meeting” and “I’m going to have to ask you to leave” before calling for security. This is not a comedy and is supposed to be serious. How do scenarios like this happen? Did the producers ask to read the script and Tanter and Phillips are like, “Nah, nah. We got this.” To make matters even more confusing, they recast the heroic female leads and don’t make any overt connection that this is a follow up by giving it an even more awkward title. I actually had a friend who had no idea this was a sequel, which probably left him even more confused. You have to really know the Tanter-verse to keep it all straight, which is great for me as I now know the third film is coming soon. In keeping with the throat-choking title tradition, it is currently titled (takes deep breath) ONE CHRISTMAS NIGHT IN A TOY STORE. I look forward to experiencing its beautiful sheen and boundless stupidity.

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