George Buza (Santa Claus) entered the Scotiabank Theatre fifteen minutes before the show. Decked out as Saint Nick and with two elves in tow, Santa stalked the halls, encouraging festivalgoers to shout “Down with Krampus!” in return for candy canes and tee shirts. Thus began one of the more unusual, but nevertheless enjoyable, film experiences at Toronto After Dark so far.
I did not know that A Christmas Horror Story was an anthology movie until the last twenty minutes of its screening. During the Q&A, one of the directors mentioned that the creative team felt that they had the option to make a straight up anthology film, with distinct, self-contained segments, or they could weave them together to make an entire feature. In this, they were not successful.
Yes, the stories all take place on Christmas Eve in the fictional town of Bailey Downs and, yes, not unlike the more satisfying Tales of Halloween, they are glued together by a radio DJ — played by William Shatner — but beyond some superficial connections, there is no overarching story. This presents real problems for A Christmas Horror Story. Since the stories are not self-contained, we bounce between four largely un-related stories, which are never given a chance to shine on their own.
The four stories are:
- Santa and Mrs. Claus deal with a zombie outbreak at the North Pole hours before Christmas Eve deliveries are to start.
- A police officer and his wife cut down a pine tree from an ancient forest and get more than they bargained for when they discover they have brought home a changeling.
- Three students break into a school to document a grisly and supernatural double murder that occurred last Christmas and find themselves trapped as history begins to repeat itself.
- A wealthy and vapid family arrives at a distant relative’s to pull a scam but instead is menaced by the anti-Santa Claus: Krampus.
Because I did not know these stories were meant to be separate, I kept waiting for them to be tied together and did not realize until the last twenty minutes that they were not going to be. The creators mentioned in the Q&A that they tried to find some connections between the segments (such as having the police officer from the changeling story be the same officer that investigated the ghost story murders). But the primary rationale for making the film as four separate stories was for efficiency’s sake. With only a few months to write and shoot the film the producers divided the work between four writing teams and then found ways to connect the works.
Given the constraints, I feel that not cutting between the segments but instead playing each of them in their entirety and then moving to the next would have the served the film far better. The film opens in medias res with the Santa Claus segment and then returns to the beginning and the ending works well by telling the North Pole story this way. By cutting between the North Pole but keeping the other segments whole (stitched together with Shatner’s DJ shtick), each story would have been given more space to work and not have to vie as much with the other segments for tonal consistency.
In fact, one of the writers in the Q&A said that many of the comedic elements in the Krampus story had to be pulled back or cut entirely because they did not fit the overall tone of the other segments. Additionally, I felt that the more dramatic and serious tone of the changeling segment did not fit well with the other stories. Had it been a more self-contained story, it could have more comfortably occupied its dramatic space. By letting each segment stand on its own the film could have avoided these problems.
A Christmas Horror Story is also somewhat bedeviled by low production values. The CGI for the North Pole was very disappointing, to the point that I would have preferred that it be cut entirely in favor of a more mysterious setting (which would have served the ending better, in my opinion). Also, many of the action scenes were disorienting and almost nauseating to watch due to shoddy camera work and editing.
Despite these problems, A Christmas Horror Story was still an enjoyable experience. I can’t say that the festival crowd didn’t have an influence on me, and I am a little skeptical that I would have enjoyed the film as much on a small screen (it probably will feel right at home on SyFy). But, ultimately, the over-the-top Santa action scenes, genuinely spooky elements and the delightful William Shatner pulling everything together left me drunk on the joy of the season (and zombie elf decapitations). Perhaps we will return to Bailey Downs in the future — maybe for a Boxing Day Horror Story?
- William Shatner’s booze-soaked performance (presumably it was a performance…) as he delivered increasingly troubling notices of some kind of disturbance occurring at the Bailey Downs mall was wonderful, especially his one-sided banter with the off-screen “Susan”.
“No no, Susan, I’m gonna talk about Jesus on the radio and you know why? Because it’s his birthday tomorrow!”
- The ghost story was a real stretch to fit into the Christmas theme. The only connection was that the murders took place on Christmas. Honestly, this story could have been in any horror anthology and was probably the weakest of the four.
- For a pretty low-budget flick, the Krampus creature design, used in both the Krampus and North Pole segments, was excellent. The filmmakers were lucky to discover their Krampus performer, Rob Archer (who was in attendance and is about as wide across the shoulders as I am tall).
- Olunike Adeliyi and Adrian Holmes’s performances in the changeling segment — the second changeling story at this year’s After Dark after The Hallow — were particularly strong and emotional. Their more serious performance and story often felt at odds with the rest of the segments, though.
- The final twist was both unexpected and hilarious. It brought laughs and cheers from the After Dark crowd at the Scotiabank.
- Maybe I’m crazy, but shouldn’t this movie be called Christmas Horror Stories if it’s an anthology?