Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be doing instead of wasting time on the internet, avoiding throngs of holiday shoppers who are all growing increasingly more unhinged with every new rendition of some overplayed Christmas carol they hear in yet another overcrowded store. Actually, when you put it like that, staying on the internet seems like a great idea. We don’t live in the stone age anymore. Worse, we live in a world where the dreaded ring of the holidays bells starts in July and gets ever louder with each passing month. By the time October rolls around, we’re usually already treading through the red and green waters to get to any scarce Halloween sales that might be going on and they will be gone by the 31st because they have to make room for even more gaudy displays of silver and gold and lights and deer and some big fat asshole who knows when you’re awake.
Okay so I get it. I’m not the holiday type and anyone who knows me knows that while I enjoy giving people things, I am a much bigger fan of Krampus than I am of the holiday that incredible beastie is associated with. In fact, over the years, I’ve developed my own traditions that usually include baking bats and coffins and listening to a favorite podcast that does an anti-holiday episode every year. (Strange Jason is awesome and you should check him out the rest of the year too!) I know there are many for whom this is a special time of year that they absolutely love and that’s just fine. I assure you that I’m not here to rain on your snowy, sparkly green and red parade but hear me out for just a minute. For everyone that gets giddy around the time that the first snowflake falls or gets excited to see the first lights display going up in their neighborhood, there is guaranteed to be another person or two within at least a block of you who is seeing those same things and is already bracing themselves for the hellish nightmare of a season to come.
It’s not you they’re having a problem with, most likely. It’s the music. Those non-stop carols that play incessantly for nearly a month and a half. Its the obligation. The conscription meals with family members that you may not even really like and yet you’re stuck there for hours on end, hoping the dinner will be an excuse for them to stuff their face and just stop talking. And that’s just the parts we complain about first. There’s the financial burden, the people stuck working retail, the traffic, the weird hours that everything goes into (good luck getting a bus), the pressure to stay cheery for an entire month and a half because no one likes a grinchy jerk at their party, the questions about where your life is headed and so very much more. No, there’s plenty of reasons to completely avoid the holidays, even if you love this time of year. If you’re sick of shoppers, relatives, cornball movies and those goddamn carols, stay inside with me and let’s take a trip back to Bailey Downs for a holiday that is anything but jolly.
If that name Bailey Downs is ringing any bells that aren’t the silver kind for you, that’s probably because we were just there back in October. Yes, this was the setting of the absolutely excellent Ginger Snaps. Sure, if we ignore all the sequels, it only took us fifteen years to get back there but we are going back to that sleepy little suburban setting to see what new horrors they have in store for us. And I do mean that they are new as there are no werewolves to be found or even mentioned in this film. Which, given the gift horse that the setting gives you with the biggest, most sparkly ribbon possible, seems a bit like a tossing out a present unopened because you didn’t like the wrapping paper but whatever. The DVD box and the internet assure me that this film is by the same people but according to everything I can find on it, the stories are written by different people and the directors aren’t the same either. I’m going to call a bit of a bluff on that one and move on as really, other than Bailey Downs, this film doesn’t really have anything in common with Ginger or what happened in any of the associated films to that first one. And with that, we’re going to leave our werewolf behind because we have a holiday to ruin with A Christmas Horror Story!
Weirdly enough, this isn’t A Christmas horror story as the title implies but rather, a few strung together with certain connecting details. The connections are a little bit of a wild card element to the movie overall, sometimes with an okay tether and occasionally with a piece of string so frayed it might snap if you farted at it. It’s actually more like an anthology with a frame tale that ties the whole thing up like a perfectly placed area rug. I say “like” an anthology because the stories run concurrently to each other, each kind of nudging each other out of the way to take centre stage for a while, usually pausing at crucial points or on a jumpscare before leaping into the next section. There are pros and cons to this which I will go into later but I will say that I think this was in service to those connecting threads between the stories themselves.
By now, you’re probably itching to know more, so let’s unwrap this and show off what we got. I’m going into each story as it gets introduced, minus the frame tale which is just acting as icing that glues this sometimes crumbling cookie together. (If sub par Dad jokes aren’t your thing, this might be a painful review for you.) We are given our preamble opening by none other than the one and only William (Fucking) Shatner as a jolly as balls radio DJ named (no joke) Dangerous Dan keeping us company on Christmas Eve. Apparently, Dan O’Dare got sick of the Bad Channels universe with its Short Circuit reject robots and monsters that would be laughed off of MST3K and decided to settle down to retire in Bailey Downs. Having had enough of Shatner’s jolly schtick, our first story enters the ring to take us on their respective journey. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but three teenagers get wind of some gruesome murder that occurred in some building and it immediately means they have to go investigate and then some of them don their gaily red apparel and enter into forbidden areas that are hiding creative methods to die. This story acts as a kind of lynch pin for the other two tales as one of the guys set to investigate the death trap is the boyfriend of the teen girl in the second story and the footage that they find of the murder belonged to the former police officer and father featured in the third story. It’s kind of a shame because this first story is the weakest one in the anthology and doesn’t do much to hold the other two in place but we’ll get to that soon enough.
The second story featuring the guy’s girlfriend is a tale as old as Christmas Vacation with a bit of a twist that’s ruined by the box art. I think everyone at this point is familiar with the cliche “ideal” Christmas. It’s that thing that people who love this season enjoy the idea of, but I’m not convinced anyone has ever really pulled off. Hallmark has made a fortune on selling this ideal to people for years, with images of gentle snow falling and cozy fireplaces and pretty little snowed in cottages and twinkling lights and happy children sleeping with new beloved toys and large families sitting around beautiful, opulent dinners, all smiling and laughing. Of course, none of this includes reality because none of these scenarios are real or involve people. Snow only stays pretty for about twenty minutes until you have to walk or drive in it. Snowed in cottages can be super dangerous places to spend a vacation if you aren’t prepared for it. Twinkling lights are cute until you have to untangle them or put them up or find out which one of those motherfuckers is burnt out. Children don’t sleep happily with toy trains or any quaint little trinkets anymore but the quaint little electronics they do like are a hell of a lot more expensive. And good luck if anyone around that dinner table brings up politics! This is an old joke, though. Even Christmas Vacation knew this and it had more than enough material for an entire movie back in the 80s. So this particular tale had enough to be loaded right from the start and could have been its own movie. (And later on, someone realized this and went ahead and basically did that but I’m getting ahead of myself by about a week. Shhh!)
Basically the tale goes as follows: Let’s follow the world’s least likeable family to see an elderly relative who hates basically everyone. Unlike the Griswalds, however, the father is kind of a dick, the mother is a bitch, the little boy is a little shit and the teen girl mentioned before is mostly just a snotty teenager who’s also a kleptomaniac. Her sticky fingers are what allowed the teens in the first story to get into the school they get trapped in and also plays a rather obvious role in this one too. Alas, it’s not her bad behavior that sets things off but rather her absolutely wretched little kid brother who breaks a Krampus ornament of the elderly aunt, getting them immediately ejected from the house. On their drive home, we get a brief glimpse of our beloved seasonal monster making the family get stuck in the ditch and they begin their hike into the woods to find their final resting places.
And while the Corpse Family was on their way to their final destination, they passed a young black family parked on the side of the road and these guys are going to be the stars of our third story. This is, hands down, the best story in the entire anthology and it’s a shame that they didn’t just expand on it and make it a movie in its own right. It ditches the kitschy family cliche set up and focuses on the struggles of the police officer who had investigated the murders from the first story. He convinces his family to forego the store bought trees and wanders deep into the woods with his wife and young son to grab a real tree. Here, we see the exact same trope as the second story but it’s incredible how a little bit of pathos goes a long way.
The father, who had to be put on stress leave after the murder investigation, wants to make amends with his family during the holidays. He wants the fun, happy Christmas celebration that the time of year promises and he’s struggling to deliver. As such, they go in search of the perfect tree in a restricted area only to have their young son wander off when he hears something calling him. When they find him, he’s changed, mute and cold. The young couple don’t know if this is just a result of the obvious stress plaguing the family or if something’s wrong with their little boy. The parents struggle to keep their emotions at bay with each other as the boy lashes out, even getting violent in places. Once they figure out what happened, things get really dangerous and tragic.
While these three stories are the only ones I’ll call official, there’s also a little half, bonus story that runs throughout the whole as well. Have you ever thought to yourself “how well do I think Santa would fare in a zombie apocalypse against his elves” and really given it the time to flesh this idea out? The filmmakers got about half of this down but quit somewhere along the whole fleshing it out line. To be fair, though, really what more do you need? You have a Santa the Barbarian type who claims that because HE is about, Christmas is corrupted. Thus we have killer zombie elves a la 28 Days Later that he beheads and slices up without much difficulty. He gets attacked repeatedly but can shrug it off as he makes his way to his final showdown with none other than my baby, Krampus. Normally this would be a bit of a spoiler but it does show them squaring off on at least one of the box covers and I think it showed it in the trailer too so you kinda knew this was coming. Where it goes I won’t spoil for anything because seriously, this one moment for me redeemed a world of other sins in this film. Like, to the tune of I don’t even care if the rest of the stories don’t make sense or are negated entirely because of this, that ending was fucking awesome level of redeemed. It’s the whole reason to watch the movie and even though I’m very very ugh on the whole zombie elves plotline, the pay off is completely worth it.
Speaking of sins, I suppose I should address those. You may have noticed that this isn’t the most glowing review I’ve ever included and while this is far from a terrible film, it’s got some issues that I think we should consider anyway. For one, let’s talk about that first story. I’ve already said that it’s the weakest in the group and that’s an issue because it ties the other two together, which is the only way that this jumping between really works. There are other issues with that as well and I’ll get to that soon enough but something that relates directly to those issues is the fact that this story is super generic.
There is very little to dress up a scenario as old as three kids sneak into a place they’re not supposed to be in, at a time that they aren’t supposed to be there. Considering how little a role the holiday plays in this story, you kind of wonder if they didn’t just rewrite something else to shove it into this film. There’s one measly little line about a “war on Christmas” over a nativity scene (don’t even get me started about this supposedly coming out of the mouth of a sixteen year old), but otherwise, it has pretty much nothing to do with the holiday at all. You can argue as to how the pay off fits if you squint but it’s not a strong connection and certainly not strong enough that this story couldn’t have played out at any other time of year. The book Summer of Night even tackles some of this in a lot more effective ways during the summer, so we know it’s possible. This story isn’t a complete dud, however, with some decently creepy moments, but said pay off isn’t worth the journey ultimately. I kinda want more out of a story included in something called A Christmas Horror Story and it should have actually had more call to the season, especially in its conclusion.
As much as it pains me to say this, this is the same criticism that I have leveled at the third story. There’s nothing really specific that links this particular entity to the holiday season and while that’s not a deal breaker, obviously, it does make it seem like it was shoved in too. That said, the use of the holiday was smarter here and while the first story pays lip service to it, this one actually drafted it into the narrative itself. It did a world of good to connect it to why it’s a Christmas horror story and I think if it had been given its own script, developed beyond the squished anthology format that it was forced to contend with and really allowed to blossom, this would have been the whole movie for me. It seriously is a great story and could have been a great movie with a lot more scare factor included in it. As it was, the creep factor was excellent right from the start. You know something is wrong with the kid from the time you see him come back to the family and the hints around what might be happening are only made that much more delicious with the drama surrounding the strain on the marriage from the father’s obvious PTSD and his methods of coping with it. Considering how easily I could call back to that beautiful climax from Ginger Snaps as the story started coming to a conclusion, it should have had the best ending. Unfortunately, the format fails it here too and you end up with a rush job wherein we almost get a good scare and then it’s over. Still, this is totally worthy of your time and if you watch this film for no other reason, watch it for this part. It’s a good section, it’s well acted, it’s got a genuinely well crafted story and no matter how rushed the ending is on this one, it’ll do a world of good for you if you’re looking to wash the saccharine forced cheer of the holidays out of your mouth.
That brings us backwards to the second story. This one is a bit of a thorn in my side because it has everything I wanted and nothing I wanted at the same time. For one, we have our completely unlikeable family, somewhere on par with Kevin’s stellar group in Home Alone. Except kinda worse. At least in Home Alone, the teenagers were being kinda bitchy but they seemed pretty normal in their annoying factor and they were only really there to present the main character as being a cute, mischievous foil. In this story, however, we have the teen girl who doesn’t really do much except steal things between being snotty and rude. You can hardly blame her with squabbling bitchy parents and a little brother that they establish is not only a little shit but also might be a violent sociopath(?). (Might have wanted to devote more than a line of dialogue to that, guys.) I get that this is only to establish from the start that they aren’t people you should get attached to. I’ve seen enough slashers to know beast bait when I see it but therein lies the ultimate issues with this story. For one, you don’t have a whole movie to flesh out and redeem or build these assholes up into people you care about. Competent slashers still get that you need to give a shit about these characters to get any reaction to their deaths. To be fair, they try to do this a little later but again, you had less than a quarter of the movie to do this and it should have started at the beginning. If you’re not going to do that, you need to at least have something for the audience to hang on to and they go the wrong route tonally.
This was always going to be an issue and even comes up in the frame tale to some extent but this story suffers the most from the tonal shift between all the tales in this film. The first story is played pretty simplistic and serious. The third story is played absolutely serious and commits to it completely. This story is played almost with a sort of humorous(?) tone with the over the top despicable family and the cliche annoying holiday elements. The thing is that this is the most Christmas-y story of the whole anthology, aside from the weird Santa parts. It leans right into the cliches and again, I think it might have been better with a lot more time and more effort. The thing that kills it for me, however, is the thing that should have made it the best story.
I’m not kidding when I say that of all the things associated with this holiday, Krampus is my absolute favorite. There are other holiday monsters out there but this was the first one that I latched on to when my poor Christmas-hating heart was trying to suffer through the season without really much to hang on to except for annual viewings of The Nightmare Before Christmas. I do like that movie too and it was a good place to start but it always kind of got to me that Mr. Skellington was so in love with this holiday that I’m very much not a fan of. The idea that there was something out there that was actually horrific and wasn’t just another Black Christmas or some killer Santa knock off and had a basis in folklore was entirely up my alley.
This is a rich area to mine for ideas and there’s no better figure to tap to stand up with the guy in the red suit like this horned, hulking monster. I’m all for a showdown between these titans of the season in the right film and under the right direction, that would be a Christmas movie I would watch in fucking July. The thing is, they don’t give Krampus anything to do in this story. Seriously, he has no lines, he’s given nothing to do but off the naughty family members one by one and you could replace him with a rabid reindeer and have mostly the same story going on. I can say that I get not wanting to tip their hand too soon (aside from the whole showing him in the box art and the trailer) but they also wait for a fairly long time to even show him and by the time you actually get to see our monster, it’s been a long time waiting. All this said, the pay off to the second story, where he features most prominently, does go a far way to redeeming itself. It doesn’t entirely get a pass for how it played out but it does stick the landing in the end so I’m still giving credit to it for being satisfying.
So is this worth a watch after all is said and done? I’ll put a tentative yes? I know I’ve kinda bagged on this film a little more than maybe I should for a film I’m still giving a recommendation to but I feel like a part of it shot itself in the foot straight off the bat. From the start, you know this is set in Bailey Downs and if you’ve seen any of those first films, you already come in with expectations. If you’re wholly ignorant to Ginger Snaps and its other films, maybe this isn’t really a selling point or maybe it doesn’t matter at all to you. It’s worth noting again that this film came out fifteen years after that first one did so it’s entirely possible that some people aren’t going to have seen the other one. The problem is that for those who have, Ginger Snaps was and still is a great horror film that took time to develop its brutal scares and really gave you characters that you could really get behind, even the primary antagonist. It’s impossible to shrug off the influence of how that shapes what you want to see when going into this film when the setting is right there. Considering that the werewolves aren’t brought up nor do they play really any role in any of the plotlines of the stories, you could have set this anywhere and I think it would have been better for it. All this said, I don’t think this is a deal breaker in the end.
What you do get in this film can outweigh the bad if you’re prepared for it. For one, the costumes and effects are stellar. The colors are dark and cold and muted and it gives everything a great creepy tone. In the moments that work, they really get some great scary scenes. And even though I’ve bitched about Krampus not being what I wanted, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t enjoy the design of the monster himself. It’s not traditional but it does a lot with the white fur and skin and the contrast of when he’s covered in blood. The filmmakers were surprisingly skimpy on the gore in this film but when there was some, it was pretty well done and not overly gratuitous. In fact, sometimes, it’s more devastating when it is so understated. For all the tonal issues that came up, the atmosphere was pretty solid too and they did a lot to capture what it was like being outside in the snow and making it feel cold. There are also some brilliantly cathartic moments where you can see yourself being stuck in that car ride or getting lost in the woods or feeling stressed around the holidays. I can also see it as being a nice addition to someone’s watch list if they are getting sick of the incessant Christmas movies and just need something that is still part of the season but not shoving its holiday butt cheeks in your face to the point of suffocation. To top it all off, you have William Shatner being fun. They really let him play with this role and he brings in some great moments too. The good moments, I can’t deny are worth a watch, at least once. And really, if you want a horror film that just helps to wipe out the stains of another viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life from your brain or finally silence the chorus of what Mariah Carey wants for Christmas, this does a lot to help with that.
With that, I thank you for joining me again for another Friday Nightmare Review! If you’re the holiday sort and this review isn’t for you, you’re in luck. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be featuring a new original Holiday Ghost Story here on the site, featuring my curvy horror hostess, Dolly, and her monstrous friends. And if the holidays get you down or stress you out, join me anyway and enjoy some monsters trying to figure out how to deal with an unwanted visitor in the depths of winter! And until next time, here’s hoping that you steer clear of shitty holiday cliches, enjoy any kind of holiday cheer that you prefer (responsibly) and may your nights be silent of any of those goddamn overplayed carols!