Studio: RLJ Entertainment
Director: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan
Writer: James Kee, Sarah Larsen, Doug Taylor, Pascal Trottier
Producer: Steven Hoban, Mark Smith
Stars: George Buza, Ken Hall, Debra Lynne McCabe, Joe Silvaggio, Zoe De Grand Maison, Shannon Kook, Alex Ozerov, William Shatner
A radio DJ links together tales of Santa battling undead elves, a family stalked by Krampus, three teens investigating a haunted school, and a Christmas tree hunt that unearths a changeling.
“Anthology” isn’t the dirty word death-knell it used to be. With the popularity of “V/H/S” and “ABCs of Death” (review here) as franchise series, and projects like “Tales of Halloween” and “XX” attracting emergent talent in genre entertainment, Mike Dougherty’s “Trick ‘r Treat” no longer finds itself alone as the format’s only applauded 21st-century success story.
Which makes it curious that “A Christmas Horror Story” refers to itself in singular terms while an official synopsis with this abbreviated logline simply says: “When Krampus – the anti-Santa who punishes naughty children – is summoned by a young boy, everyone’s fight for survival begins,” as though wishing to keep any indications of anthology origins hush-hush. Really, “A Christmas Horror Story” should have no reason to fear celebrating its status as an entertaining collection of holiday-themed horror shorts that does for December 25th what “Trick ‘r Treat” did for October 31st.
Featured in the film are these four core stories:
When an undead outbreak turns his elves into obscenity-spewing terrors, Santa goes on a no-holds-barred offensive, culminating in a showdown with the evil entity responsible for the North Pole mayhem: Krampus.
Speaking of the mythical monster, a family of four is forced to confess their most sinful secrets when Krampus comes to punish the wicked on Christmas Eve.
Trespassing in a strange forest to chop down a tree, a couple gradually discovers that the boy brought home from the woods may be something more sinister than their son.
Three teens investigating an unsolved double murder in a high school basement become trapped inside while uncovering the haunting responsible for blood on the walls.
Rounding things out is William Shatner as a nog-spiking radio host spinning Christmas tunes and getting tipsy until he ends up broadcasting reports on a horrible mall massacre. Squeezing in the icon when the narrative doesn’t need him smacks of stunt casting, which it probably is, but Shatner brings enough of his classic game to be an amusing inclusion. It’s hard to tell if he is sometimes flubbing lines, improvising, both, or neither. Whatever the ratio is of casual commitment to professional performance, his presence fits as a fun personality boost.
Comparing Shatner to the cryptkeeper (no jokes, please) or referring to his scenes as a wraparound, even though it seems like that might be his logical purpose, wouldn’t even be close to correct. “A Christmas Horror Story” is so determined to buck traditional trappings that it doesn’t play by expected rules of structuring segment presentation. “A Christmas Horror Story” runs its separate parts concurrently, bounding back and forth between each story so the energy level of the film as a whole stays on one track instead of resetting rhythm with one-at-a-time start and stop stories.
The downside is that with each segment’s scenes spread out across the 100-minute runtime, there is no option to revisit favored shorts on the quick or out of order. Viewing the entire film in a single sitting is required.
The upside is that this unorthodox approach to an anthology enables the movie to disguise the fact that its segments aren’t quite connected by the same vibe. Santa vs. the elves becomes a gorily gonzo rumble of slightly silly proportions. The trio trapped in their high school basement is strictly serious supernatural business. The Krampus-crazed family falls somewhere in between, and the Christmas tree creature leans towards dark fable territory. A consistent visual look keeps the four stories feeling in common while the scattered breakdown makes it harder to notice how unrelated everything is tonally.
“A Christmas Horror Story” does come up with clever gags to link each tale, however. Shatner’s broadcast is cut off by a radio knob turned by one of the intrepid teens. Those same teens break into their building thanks to a set of keys provided by the girl going to fight Krampus with her family. And the man taking his family to the forest to find a yuletide tree happens to be the officer who investigated the original murders at the school. Those connections are as loose as they can be, but it is just enough of a thread to keep everything tethered to the snowy, sleepy small town of Bailey Downs.
Krampus carnage at Santa’s workshop is left standing as the sole sore thumb, until the movie unveils a table-turning surprise that also finds a clever way to make Shatner’s seemingly divergent rambling relevant. It’s an inventively killer twist that appears telegraphed in retrospect, but hits hard when you don’t see it coming.
George Buza is delightfully devilish as a take-no-prisoners Santa Claus all out of bubblegum and unleashing kung-fu fury. An Elfman-esque score elevates atmosphere with moody holiday music. Undead elves, bloodthirsty ghosts, a changeling troll, two Krampus appearances, one from Julian Richings, and William Shatner chewing scenery from his seat. How many more presents does this movie need under its tree? “A Christmas Horror Story” is festively frightful with a crisp look and sharp hooks, worthy of an annual visit for spirited holiday horror.
Review Score: 80