Director: Paul Tanter
Writer: Christopher Jolley
Producer: Simon Phillips, Paul Tanter, Mem Ferda
Stars: Laurel Brady, Susannah Mackay, Jeff Ellenberger, Sayla Vee de Goede, Simon Phillips, Eric Welch, Brook Fletcher, Barry Kennedy
Killers dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus terrorize a small town by going on a murder spree themed to the 12 days of Christmas.
I don’t know if it counts as a spoiler to say “Once Upon a Time at Christmas” features a psycho in a Santa suit and his Mrs. Claus accomplice committing murders themed to the ’12 Days of Christmas’ lyrics, since the movie presents its motif as a mystery to be solved. I also don’t know which notion is more absurd, that a tiny town in rural New York has a place called Turtle Dove Point and families named Partridge, Swan, and Frenchens connected to the same teen girl, or that it takes the sheriff ten days to put together how the numbers and names fit with the song while the audience figures it out in 15 minutes.
But that’s the situation facing alcoholic old sheriff Jim Mitchell and headshot handsome deputy Sam Fullard. They’ve got a killer Claus on the loose in Woodridge taking an ax to strippers (nine ladies dancing), bachelor party revelers (ten leaping lords, I guess), even six geese and eight milking machines on a nearby farm (no, really). Weirdly, local girl Jen appears to have some kind of connection to each victim (including the vandalized machinery) and no one seems to know what her link might be. They’d better get to the bottom of it fast though, otherwise that ‘Drum Fest’ party coinciding with Christmas Eve is going to culminate in a dozen more deaths.
It’s downright comical how hard the movie shoves ’12 Days of Christmas’ clues in your face. One exchange has the deputy asking the sheriff, “Lisa Swan’s parents are freaking out … we found swans in the pool … little toy swans … what do you want me to tell Lisa Swan’s parents?” Tell them your dialogue doesn’t need four references in one conversation to make sure I connect the “seven swans a’ swimming” lyric to Lisa Swan and a pool. Then swing by the Frenchens house and tell them to keep the camera off their mailbox. The close-up only reinforces how serendipitously stupid the name ‘Frenchens’ sounds.
If that isn’t on the nose enough, there’s also a British forensic analyst called in for two scenes so he can use the term “birds” in reference to women. How else would we know the four ladies killed in a bar qualify as calling birds? While we’re asking questions, what would Santa have done if Lisa Swan wasn’t swimming on the seventh day of Christmas, or if the FBI had sent less than five agents with rings on their fingers?
“Once Upon a Time at Christmas” seemingly realizes it has a preposterous plot, yet never takes advantage of that fact with a style suiting its spirit. A humorous moment comes with only a half hour to go when the mayor, upon acknowledging he and a club full of cash spenders are seconds away from slaughter, quips, “this is not going to be good for the local economy.” If the film kept this kind of flavor throughout the preceding hour, “Once Upon a Time at Christmas” could be blackly comic horror entertainment. Instead, the movie mostly treats its material seriously, and amateur acting and silly scripting have no hope of backing that tone.
Barry Kennedy as the sheriff is the only performer remotely believable in his portrayed profession. A glance at IMDb shows previous credits for Kennedy in law enforcement roles, suggesting possible real-life experience, or at least experience playing this kind of part. In contrast, the actor playing the mayor couldn’t get elected to the housing committee of his apartment building, much less public office. He at least plays a character however. The people playing Jen’s friends are just reciting lines. And Sayla Vee de Goede (even the cast has unbelievable names) plays her murderous Mrs. Claus as though she is auditioning for Harley Quinn in a “Suicide Squad” knockoff.
“Once Upon a Time at Christmas” includes a couple of good locations for a microbudget production: a big mall, a police station, a nice home, plentiful exteriors. It’s a shame the production is shot with a distractingly erratic handheld camera cheapening the look. Speaking of cheap looks, if you’re going to use prefab Halloween Store props for severed fingers, don’t light them so viewers can see they are hollow plastic.
It’s perfectly fine for a holiday horror film to be loaded with this much absurdity. Under different circumstances, I could even excuse some of the low quality aesthetics. The problem is “Once Upon a Time at Christmas” picks an entirely wrong take on its concept, which makes for a movie that is regrettably more of a flop than it is frightfully fun.
Review Score: 45