Christmas is a divisive holiday. There's the "joy to the world" types, the white elephant and wine types, the bah-humbuggers. And then there are those that feel like Halloween was ill-served, and want a little blood on the snow and thorns on the Yuletide log. For them, A Christmas Horror Story is definitely no coal in their stocking.
The cover of the home release sets high expectations: a giant albino Krampus (c'mon, it's 2015, you know who Krampus is by now) going toe-to-toe – or rather leather boot to cloven hoof – with Santa Claus, who wields his bishop's staff like a war hammer.
Guess what? A Christmas Horror Story actually delivers on that seasonal bloodbath, with gory, glorious, and furiously festive results.
The anthology horror is co-directed by alumni of the beloved Ginger Snaps teen werewolf series: Grant Harvey (director, Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning; Brett Sullivan, editor of Ginger Snaps and Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed; and franchise producer Steve Hoban, who's also responsible for Splice, and the Black Christmas remake). In a clear nod to that deliciously twisted and poignant series, each interwoven subplot is set in the snowy wilds around the winter-covered town of Bailey Downs, the Canadian suburban setting of the whole tale (side point: also used as a location in the phenomenal TV series Orphan Black, on which both Harvey and Sullivan have worked).
More importantly, it carries that series' mordant sense of humor, but amped on eggnog. Each segment is a pretty simple tale of bloody supernatural horror: like the similarly holiday-themed Trick 'r Treat, each hangs on to one simple seasonal tradition: as one family goes hunting for the perfect Christmas tree, another goes to visit a crabby relative, while a bunch of teenagers head to a spooky nearby school to explore the site of a Christmas ghost story.
Only one segment, the wraparound featuring veteran character actor and voice-over institution George Buza as Santa, feel discordant. After all, the others feel very Earth-bound, even if the supernatural is forever tapping its frost-encrusted claw on the human's shoulders. Yet Father Christmas wading his bloody way through an army of undead elves seems a change of tempo. until a deliciously twisted resolution (with a clear nod to another Canadian seasonal exploitation classic) that will warm the dark cockles of the most twisted Christmas spirit.
Once it folds itself into the festivities more clearly, it's actually the tale of three teens (Zoé De Grand Maison, of Orphan Black, Alex Ozerov from Blackbird, and Shannon Kook from The Conjuring and the cult-level-adored Degrassi: The Next Generation) locked in a school basement that may be the most tonally at odds. An inverted tale of a Christmas virgin birth, it's the most sexually charged and disturbing of the bunch. Staying with a fear of the infant at the bosom, there's a darkness of a much more mature kind, with TV regulars Adrian Holmes (Arrow, Continuum) and Oluniké Adeliyi (Flashpoint) as a couple dealing with a troubled child that becomes more troubled after a trip to the woods.
Both have the necessary creepiness to balance possibly the most conventionally fun segment, as the family trip becomes a battle against their own sins, as Krampusnacht sets for all the bad girls and boys. And what could be better than a quick run through the woods on a frosty night? Just don't think about what's out there in the shadows. Think of this as the Gremlins goofiness wedged in among more serious shrieks, as everyone gets what they deserve before the sun rises on Christmas day.
The ribbon wrapping all this together is the presence of the indefatigable William Shatner as well, William Shatner, in his wonderfully droll, heartfelt dotage. Nominally, he's Dangerous Dan, the local radio deejay trying to survive the Christmas broadcast with some heartily spiked season beverages. Sensibly, the directors just give him the mic and let him go, and the closing credits are a wonderful jumble of improv outtakes from the master raconteur and adorable uncle of genre cinema. There's no wink, no nod, just Shatner at his free-flowing best, and there's little in this world more entertaining.
As for the tales themselves, they reenforce two facts. One, that the short story is the ideal format for a tale to chill the bones; and two, that the current storm of excellent and diverse anthology horrors shows no signs of abating. Unlike many of its gorier or faux-verite contemporaries, this Canadian delight catches the more fantastical feelings of a Creepshow or Trilogy of Terror, with the odd eruption of slightly more queasy gore. So, not always suitable for the smallest kids and the more judgmental elderly relatives: but for adults looking to add something a little nastier to the regular rotation of A Nightmare Before Christmas and A Muppet Christmas Carol, then this is the bloody gift that will keep on giving.
A Christmas Horror Story (Image Entertainment) is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD now.
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