Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

December to Dismember: SECRET SANTA (2015)

Sometimes I feel like maybe I'm a bit too stringent with modern low-budget horror films. They are so easy to make, these days, and require so little money to produce, that every douchebag who thinks they are hilarious while doing shots with their asshole friends (see 2018's MOTHER KRAMPUS 2), can crank out a "horror" movie and actually make a couple bucks doing it. Wading, nostril-deep though these movies can make one pretty cynical, so when something comes along that is just shy of the mark, it makes it all the more painful.

Decidedly falling into the category of "a group of college friends make a movie", SECRET SANTA (not to be confused with the forthcoming film from Adam Markus of 1993s JASON GOES TO HELL), has trouble hitting the mark, but gets lots of points for trying.

A couple of college girls, Jenny and Clarissa (Keegan Chambers) come home early from the bars. Since Clarissa is chundering drunk, Jenny dumps her on the floor and goes to her room to find a secret Santa gift on her bed. Opening it to find a filthy, well-used power drill, she opens her door and shouts "whoever is screwing with me, it's 10pm on a Friday and I'm sober, so I am not in the mood!" Finally, someone has written a character that my college-age self can relate to. After taking a shower, because that's what girls do, she returns to her bedroom where the gift giver turns out to be a black clad, balaclava-wearing nutbar who proves to her that the drill, while dirty, is in fine working order by drilling out her eye. Damn, I was just starting to like her.

Fortunately for the viewer, as well as the killer, this appears to be a sorority house of sorts, except it is completely free of obnoxious Greek letters. So I guess it's just a house with a bunch of girls in it.

Cute and peppy Nicole (Annette Wozniak) in order to pay for her school tuition, has a sideline business involving lingerie, large vegetables and a web-cam. Her boyfriend Bryan (Brent Baird), is completely unaware of this as he is totally devoted to her. Well, aside from that one night with Clarissa, of course. There is also Liv (Nicole Kawalez), who is secretly dating Professor Ramsey (Tony Nashed), who is supposed to be significantly older, but is pretty much the same age. They plan on announcing their copulation-ritual bonding at a Christmas party that the girls are having at the house later on that night where they will do the old secret Santa thing. Ramsey is briefly flagged as a potential killer as he has a secret Santa gift in his drawer. One of a few weak attempts at throwing out some red herrings. There is also the hyper-active Dwayne (Geoff Almond), who doesn't study for tests, drinks lots of coffee and snorts white powder leading to comically erratic behavior. Surprisingly, he's not as annoying as he sounds.

Most of the running time of the movie is character pieces, such a Dwayne getting wired and sitting down to cram for the next day's test. Of course everything that can go wrong does and he ends up totally unprepared and tweaking in class, at one point hallucinating that Nicole's face is contorting like a bad Blumhouse horror movie. This finally leads us to the lame Christmas party in which Liv makes hors d'oeuvres out of Nicole's erm, used vegetables and we get lots of awkward silence after Liv's new BF and everyone's teacher, Ramsey, shows up. While the movie cruises along amiably enough on the cast's likability and some fun throw-away jokes, once your jokes turn into a '90s "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which everyone sits around in uncomfortable silence, my holiday generosity starts heading for the door. If I want to watch a movie that has long moments of silence, I'll watch a creepy Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie, thankyouverymuch.

In addition to bringing the movie to a screeching halt, this silent night plays with the awkwardness of Liv's new boyfriend being not only everyone's professor, but significantly older and a big fan of tweed sports jackets with elbow patches. While the role was clearly written with someone like Martin Mull in mind, what we get is a guy who is pretty much the same age as Liv and is very clearly not the stiff, whitebread type. Making things worse is the fact that Nashed seems even more lost in the role than his character. This really hurts the film's latter half, but the most glaring problem is... c'mon, everyone say it with me: "I thought this was a horror movie!?"

While written and directed by one man, Mike McMurran, the film is about a schizophrenic as they come. The majority of the movie is a rather enjoyable, low-budget college student comedy. Occasionally, first timer McMurran suddenly remembers he's trying to sell a horror movie and throws in some jarringly out of context gore sequences that I think he might be trying to play for laughs. Annoyingly he also feels that the whole thing needs to have the faux-grindhouse video filter with fake scratches, lab-marks and faded color. Personally I find this a major drawback on a horror film, but on a movie that is essentially a light comedy, featuring modern technology like cell phones and laptops, it's just absurd.

We do get a slasher film in the more traditional sense, clumsily shoehorned into the ass-end of the movie, however. People start opening secret Santa presents finding odd household tools and are killed with them. In one scene we get a little comedy when Clarissa attempts to seduce Dwayne out of sheer boredom and after discovering that doing massive amounts of stimulants *ahem* restricts male bloodflow, decides to take a bath (because that's what girls do). The killer who, amazingly is unseen or heard by anyone in the house at any time, had previously given her a hairdryer. Cackling maniacally, he throws it in the tub. Or he would have, if the cord hadn't been so short that it drops harmlessly on the floor. Having to resort to doing things the old fashioned way, he then clubs her to death with it. The old too-short-powercord gag is not a new joke, by far (it was even used in the porn slasher parody CAMP CUDDLY PINES POWERTOOL MASSACRE, back in 2005), and it's a fitting metaphor for this part of the movie as the joke falls short and the punchline is rather blunt.

The effects are occasionally executed with simple prosthetics, but typically we just get gallons of red Kayro syrup being splashed all over the place. While McMurran tries to keep the audience guessing as to who the killer is, it is all rather half-hearted, and the reveal isn't very interesting and is obnoxiously over-acted. It seems like yet again, this Christmas, we have another movie that really doesn't want to be a horror movie. In an unusual turn of events, I rather liked their oddball group of college students who, for once, actually seem like people I knew in college, instead of the idealized, hyperbolic, 25 year old college students we see in bigger budgeted slasher movies. Also, because it is a Canadian movie, there is actually snow in the exterior shots. As a Californian, I frequently don't even notice when a Christmas movie lacks snowy vistas, but I always appreciate it when they do. It's a free special effect and adds immeasurably to the ambiance. Imagine GHOST KEEPER (1981) without the powder; you'd just have some people lost in a house on some grass.

Hopefully McMurran can find his groove, I think he has potential to make a solid movie. Even, maybe especially, if it is just a comedy and not trying to be a horror film.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

December to Dismember: ELVES (2018)

It was approximately a year ago that some dumb ass (yours truly) got hypnotized by the awesome cover for THE ELF (2017), which ultimately led to a love-hate affair with Redbox rejects. I just wanted a good ol’ Christmas horror movie. What I got was a horrible Christmas movie. High off the cash pilfered $1.75 at a time, Redbox quickly got a sequel from Justin Price’s Pikchure Zero Entertainment out just in time for this year’s holiday season. Now THE ELF was truly an abomination against filmmaking and I can’t imagine something being worse. “Hold my eggnog,” said the production company. Just as the titular creature multiplied, ELVES has somehow expanded on all the errors and ways to make a movie unbearable.

We open in the same small Texas town of Alton (I know this because of the end credits, not due to any filmmaker insight of establishing locations) as two young boys dig through a box of Christmas stuff. One of them hears a noise and goes to investigate in a bedroom, where he discovers a variation of the elf doll from the first film. It apparently possesses him and makes him put his younger brother in the oven. Lucky kid, out of the film by the five minute mark. We then cut to a title sequence so drawn out with every actor in the film listed that even Charles Band would complain of it being flagrant padding for length.

The main story kicks in on December 21st with a bunch of friends having a party in a dilapidated warehouse where they just sit around in lawn chairs. Apparently they are all there to celebrate Clover (Deanna Grace Congo), who one man toasts as being a “local hero, activist and lifesaver.” Now what this praise is in relation to is anyone’s guess because plot details are not a strong point for Pikchure Zero Entertainment (more on that in a bit). After plaudits are exchanged and liquor shots downed, Chance (Norma Mendiola) decides to introduce her friends to the “Naughty List” game that involves the creepy elf doll from the opening. According to the rules, you put your name on the list and “once upon the list, the only way to survive is to do what the elf tells you.” Wow, sounds like a real fun game. First on the list is Cali (Melissa Vega), who sees the elf magically appear in her hands. This amazing bit of cinema is accomplished by her holding the elf doll in her hands, pulling it up into the frame, acting shocked, and going, “Who put this here?” Yes, the same trick you did with your friends when you made movies with a video camera when you were twelve. We cut to the next morning and Cali is dropping Clover and Leah (Stephanie Marie Baggett) off. Apparently the curse has really weighed on her as she says, “I’m just ready for this to be over.” You and me both, guuuuurl! The elf shows up in her backseat, causes her to grin evilly, and hit a guy with her car.

Next up we have Randy (Loren James Haskins) working at a bar where the elf shows up on a shelf with a note telling him to poison a customer. This freaks him out so he meets three friends at the library, where they watch a news video stating Cali killed herself in a crash after driving over that guy (who, as the film reveals, had killed her younger brother in a hit-and-run last year). This leads to one of many dialogue scenes that had me questioning my sanity.

Clover: I got a text right before it happened.
Randy: What did it say?
Clover: I don’t know, I guess around 8.

WHAT? Oh, just wait my dear friends. It’s going to get loopier. Apparently the group becomes concerned for Tiffany (Erika Martinez) as she is next on the list and Clover gives her a call. Too late as the elf is in her house now and makes her snort a bunch of drugs in front of her mom. She survives her overdose and, later surrounded by friends, she wakes and asks, “Am I dead?” to which Clover responds, “Not yet.” Uh, thanks? The friends decide they need to have a big group talk where they relay their information and how it is similar to films like TRUTH OR DARE (2018) or IT FOLLOWS (2014). No better way to establish your pedigree than to have characters name films that are muuuuch better than what they are watching. Hey, at least I know someone who had a hand in this mess watches movies.

Okay, so far, so tedious. But this has been pretty normal stuff so it is time to shake up things as only Pikchure can. We randomly cut to three goth girls sitting in a pentagram with the original elf doll from the first film. They are doing some ritual and it causes one girl to stick a barbeque fork in her neck to end her life (oh how I envy her!) and the red-headed goth beats the other girl to death. Now, sit down for this, the killer girl is Sky (Amy Jo Guthrie), the goth best friend from the first film. So, yes, we finally have a connection between films outside of location. Now how do I know this? Well, because I recognized her and saw the character name in the end credits. Yes, once again, the film steadfastly refuses to establish trivial things like character names. Still with me? Good cuz I’m gonna lose your ass. We then meet a random guy out in a snowstorm who is having car trouble. He finds a Christmas ball in his car seat and then is killed by someone wearing a Krampus mask in his backseat. Wait, who the heck is this killer? Who is this guy? Who am I? What the hell is going on? As much as I hate to resort to posting a meme, this is wholly appropriate:

With their friends dropping like plot points in the script, Clover and Leah decide they need to investigate. They go to visit Chance and she fills them in on the history of the elf before shooting herself in the head. Smart lady. Our investigative duo then visit an “old” lady named Clara for more info about this curse. Wait...who the hell is Clara? No idea as the filmmakers never bother to establish who she is. Okay, if my talk of dumb dialogue has gotten you all worked up, get ready because we are about to reach the peak. I present the mother of all nonsensical exposition exchanges I’ve EVER encountered in any movie. This is Clara explaining why the elves do what they do.

Clara: The biblical Magi. They’re also referred as [SIC] the Three Wise Men or Three Kings. They were in the Gospel of Matthew or traditional Christian ideals. There’s a group of distinguished foreigners that visited Jesus after his birth bearing gifts. I don’t know, the Gospel of Matthew was the only one out of the four chronicled gospels to mention the Magi. See, Matthew reports that they came from the East to worship the King of the Jews. The gospel never mentions the number of Magi. But the Western Christian denominations, they just traditionally assumed them to be three.
Leah: The Three Wise Men, yes. What does this have to do with the elf?
Clara: Only a number because of the statement that they brought three gifts. But the Enochian translation it was seven. Psalm 72, Chapter 11. May all kings fall down before him.
Clover: Why seven?
Clara: Pride. Greed. Lust. Envy. Gluttony. Wrath. Sloth. All of them major sins, but also virtues.
Leah: You mean that there are seven of these things? These elves.
Clara: Just two.

Seven deadly sins, two elves, many confused viewers. Now as if my brain wasn’t scrambled enough, this scene ends with the “old” lady - who looks to be in her thirties- pointing toward a wall that she has a “Class of 2016” mural on and Leah goes, “! She’s only 20.” Now I can take from the reactions of the folks on screen and music that this reveal is supposed to be a shocking moment. It is only shocking in the sense that I have no idea what is going on.

To add to the building confusion, we then see Sky and the original elf kill four people who are in a Christmas support group called Santa’s Helpers. Don’t get too excited for an elf attack as this just involves Sky throwing it to a person, them catching it and then holding it to their neck while they scream. We then see the Krampus killer again as they beat Tiffany to death with a plastic tree (!) and then stalk and kill John (who?) in the library. Finally, the two plotlines converge when Clover and Leah are just randomly sitting in a car and Sky randomly jumps in the backseat with a gun and forces them to drive to her apartment. It is here she has the elf’s chest, reveals something about the elf causing a hunt, and is quickly shot dead; presumably because someone asked her “why are you doing this?” and that was too tough a choice for the filmmakers. It is then revealed that Clover was the Christmas killer all along and...fuck it, where are my keys? I need to get this shit out of my house and back in the Redbox ASAP!

Okay, I’m officially gone, lost, no bars, service unavailable. I’ll be honest, this movie might be one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. If you know my viewing habits, that is a bold statement. How bad is it? The Dan Haggerty ELVES (1989) is now not the worst movie with that title. This is not a movie, it is a flagrant attack on all things cinema. It is actually funny the film has a fleeting plot point about the seven deadly sins because I went through the seven stages of grief with this sumbitch. Actually, I might be stuck in the anger stage as I’m still fuming over how awful this is and how it could get made. Now THE ELF was truly terrible stuff, but even its muddled storytelling could be forcibly mapped out. No chance with ELVES as debuting director Jamaal Burden (which may or may not be a pseudonym for Justin Price) fails even the most rudimentary elements of film storytelling. Burden obviously wanted to live up to his last name as it is up to viewers to suss out who these characters are and what motivations they might have (if any). And trust me, that is hard work! For example, the kids at the party may have been celebrating Clover helping capturing a killer named The Holiday Reaper (which, in turn, may or may not be the Krampus masked killer). Now I know this information not from the film itself, but by reading the film’s press release. Yes, the filmmakers can’t be bothered to include dialogue as to just why their hero is heroic. Echoing the ineptness in the direction and scripting, one has to marvel at the technical aspects of the film. We have some of the worst CGI to grace my screen in a long time complete with terrible CGI blood (see pic above) and this time they don’t even bother to animate the title creatures. We also get plenty of moments of camera accidents. My personal favorite was a moment during the meeting with Carla where the camera suddenly tilts down and they left it in the film.

Another example of the film’s boneheaded-ness is in the special features on the disc. There is an interview with lead and co-producer Deanna Grace Congo. She seems likeable enough and you can’t discount her enthusiasm. Now here is the interesting thing - Congo mentions she is a magician and performs some cool sleight of hand tricks. Now think about this for a second - they have someone capable of doing something cool...and never once think to try and find some way to work this into their scenario! Doubly criminal since Congo was a co-producer. How can you not choose to work in something that could only be an asset? Even if it was a throwaway gag at their party, it might be something to get viewers involved. Nope! We will have nothing interesting in our film. ELVES is a true abomination: A film made by rank amateurs and shoved out onto the market by a cynical company with all the love and care of a disgruntled Santa’s little helper on that toy assembly line in the last five minutes of their final day. I’m not a religious man by any means, but rumor on the street is God hit up the filmmakers after finding out about this end credit shoutout and asked for them to keep him out of it.

Friday, December 7, 2018

December to Dismember: MOTHER KRAMPUS 2: SLAY RIDE (2018)

What would Christmas be around the VJ HQ without yet another Krampus movie that would drive Carry A. Nation to drink? Maybe we'd dress up in festive sweaters, make egg nogg from scratch, stoke roaring fires without ever shedding a drop of sweat and serenade our respective locals with off-key renditions of "Holy Night"... Naaaaaah, we'd just watch some other crap that would be just as bad and pay penance to the movie gods with our quota of yuletide cinematic flagellation. Some people tithe, we watch terrible movies.

As my second punishment of the season, one that would have even Job crying foul, we have a sequel to a movie that never really existed. If you live in the UK, last year you were "treated" to a no-budget family drama gussied up as a slasher movie, THE 12 DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS (2017). The digitally shot movie, about a witch (supposedly Frau Perchta) that sort of comes back from the dead on Christmas to kill some kids, had nothing to do with Krampus, so ITN Distribution decided that since Uncork'd Entertainment was cashing in on Krampus, slapped the title MOTHER KRAMPUS on the movie for US distribution. To add insult to injury, they even went the extra mile to hire the artist who painted the covers for Uncork'd's Krampus films to do up their cover. This year ITN brings us the sequel to MOTHER KRAMPUS, or at least, the cover is a sequel. The movie, of course, has nothing to do with what is on the cover, nor Krampus, nor MOTHER KRAMPUS, nor THE 12 DEATHS OF CHRISTMAS, and was originally to be titled NAUGHTY LIST. Confused yet? Good. They've got you right where they want you.

The movie opens with a young couple over at the family house getting ready for Christmas. Hipster douchebag boyfriend doesn't want to help with groceries and would rather stand outside smoking something from a pipe that is shaped like a penis. Yep, not even two minutes in and I'm already dreading the next 94 minutes. Fortunately, a bulky person wearing a hospital gown and a mask that looks like Michael Myers crossbred with Leatherface, chops said douchebag down with an axe (don't get excited, the chopping takes place out of frame and behind a fence). After finishing off the other two annoyances in the house, our killer with young, hairy, masculine legs and feet, turns out to be a heavyset older woman named Dorthea (Kris Smith), but is called Mrs. Smith throughout the movie.

A couple of strippers ("we prefer 'dancers'"), Candice (Robbie Barnes) and Gracie (Tiffani Hilton), are on their last day of probation and their probation officer, Paula (Rachel Anderson) has decided that they, along with nice girl Victoria (KateLynn E. Newberry) and plus-sized Santa drag queen Athena (Roger Conners), should spend their last hours of community service at a homeless shelter serving Christmas dinner. We know these people are homeless because they have black make-up smudged across random parts of their faces.

The girls, naturally, are not too happy about this and attempt to bond with the viewers by having one of them pass around a tray of strawberries, insisting one per person, saying "Yo! I know you're homeless and shit, but don't be getting greedy!" This is going to be a long ride to grandma's house, isn't it?

After a touching moment in which Gracie tells Victoria that she's a good kid, the girls (for the sake of simplicity, I'm including the non-binary along with the cisgenders) decide to skip out to a bar for some yuletide spirits. While Athena physically forces Victoria to drink shots, Candice gets in a heated drama scene when she spots her drug-dealer, occasional BF Donnie 8-Ball sitting in a booth with another girl. After which we get another protracted scene of nothing, while Candice and Donnie do some blow and make the car rock in the parking lot. Meanwhile Gracie, Victoria and Athena head back to the shelter and are told to liven up the place by singing Christmas carols. Haven't these poor homeless people been through enough? Athena suddenly decides to do a (thankfully) non-stripping stripper dance to a song called "Naughty Christmas", at which point all of the homeless people jump up and down with their fist in the air, doing that thing that millennials apparently do when listening to music at a party in movies. I guess this is supposed to be better than watching them do straight up carols, but I think that depends on how much you enjoy seeing dudes in drag do FLASHDANCE routines. Uhhh, if that's your thing, and you would like to own a copy of this movie, please feel free to check out my ebay listing. I'll make you such a deal.

I know, I know, you're thinking "what the hell, I thought this was a Krampus movie?!" Ha! In your dreams sucker! This ain't even a slasher movie in between the first and last 15 minutes.

Now that the singing and dancing is over (or is it?), Gracie, Victoria and Athena are volunteered to go make deliveries on their own recognizance. Seeing how their recognizance has served them so well up to this point, there is nothing that can go wrong here, right? God, please let something go wrong, PLEASE! Anything to break the monotony.

Their first stop is none other than the house in which our matronly murderer butchered the family, who as we learn later is hers. I think. It's not made very clear. Before the girls even make it to the front porch, for no apparent reason they stop in the middle of the street to sing the majority of a Christmas carol to a woman out walking her dog. It almost feels as if they were moving the camera gear (ie the iPhone) across the street and they thought it would be funny to shoot the cast singing at a random stranger. Either that or it was just another example of these schmucks trying to fill as much of the running time with random bullshit as possible, so that they don't have to come up with a real script. Once inside the house with Mrs. Smith, the fun begins! That is if you think listening to these assholes sing carols again is in any way fun. Trust me it isn't. The bloody stumps on either side of my head where my ears used to be before I clawed them off with my fingernails can attest to that.

Finally Mrs. Smith... wait for it... sits them all down to have some hot coco and chat. No, I'm not kidding. I fucking hate this movie. Mrs. Smith quizzes the trio about what lead them to their sorry state and the shrill attempts at comedy from Roger Conners as Athena is once again at the forefront "I got in trouble for trying to suck a COP'S DICK! For... COCAINE!" Honestly, if you are going to have a line that obnoxious, instead of saying it as obnoxiously as possible, a subtle delivery, a counter-point, will make it funny. For a guy that apparently prides himself on his comic talents (see his self-scribed IMDb bio, if you dare), he sure doesn't know shit about comic timing and delivery. This round-table discussion, aside from putting the viewer to sleep, provides the seemingly totally stable and articulate serial killer, Mrs. Smith, an excuse to add people to her naughty list. Victoria tells a compassionate story about how she got arrested after driving a drunk friend home... without a license... and drunk. We know Mrs. Smith is nuttier than an orange clown with a Twitter account when she finds that story pulling at her heart-strings and leaving Victoria in the clear. Or is she? Who fucking cares?

We also have Candice and Donnie arriving acting all coked-up; long walks on staircases; Paula arriving to give out some heart necklace Christmas presents (says Paula "I love Christmas, it's just so festive!"); Victoria and Paula going shopping (set to music) for a gift for Mrs. Smith (seriously); Donnie and Candice having simulated, nudity-free sex (again); people eating soup; Candice taking a shower (again, nudity-free) and so on. After winding things down to the final 15 minutes, fiiiiiinally Mrs. Smith gets back into her hospital gown and white-face mask, which also seems to give her a male physique and visible tattoos, to sloooooowly stalk the idiots in the house and kill them, mostly off screen. The shots of the victims after the attacks have some reasonably well done latex effects, I'll give them that. Then again, we also have a scene where one of the girls stabs Leathermyers in the eye with a plastic icicle ornament. In addition to it being through the mask, so there is no need for a special effect, in the next scene we have a close-up of Michaelface where the eye is clearly visible! Classic "no shits given" videomaking.

Looking over the careers of those responsible for this narcoleptic Noel, this seems to be one of very many for Roger Connors (real name Greg Grattan), who wrote about himself on IMDb that he is "recognized as one of Cleveland Ohio's premier independent film actors." His name pops up in the credits under a variety of different job descriptions and if this is the kind of dreck that you are going to crank out (about 3 or 4 of these per year), a little humility would go a long way. It's also worth noting that the Facebook page for the movie has photos of "fans" with MOTHER KRAMPUS 2 DVDs, which if you've seen the movie, you'll notice are actually pictures of the cast and crew holding up copies the disc.

After watching this one, I'm thinking maybe I was a bit too harsh with KRAMPUS: ORIGINS (2018). At least they put some effort into into the production, if nothing else. This feels like someone who owns bar, looking for a tax dodge, decided to get some friends who think they are hilarious after several shots of Jager, and made a gender-swapped HALLOWEEN knock-off for as little money as possible, with as little effort as possible. I am honestly amazed that Redbox isn't leading the holiday charge with this one. They have an awfully low bar and yet seem to have taken a pass. That should tell you something.

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 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!