A Christmas Horror Story (2015)

A Christmas Horror Story's title might undersell the content: this is at least four distinct stories, not one, each with a different tone. The stories are told in tandem, cutting back and forth over the film's hour and forty minute run time. All occur simultaneously on Christmas Eve. They're technically connected, but not significantly. Some of the characters know each other or have some background tying them to another story, but none of what happens to them in their own tales is impacted by what's going on elsewhere.

Despite being distributed direct to video on demand, this anthology was impressively well shot, written, directed, and acted. It balances the horror and comedy well, juggling between a genuinely unsettling horror/fantasy, a creature feature, a ghost story, and a campy horror tale. None of these - not even the camp - fall into the pitfalls that usually trip up this genre. The movie never forgets it's horror first, and it has no interest in settling for "so bad it's good."

Equally impressive, all four segments provide satisfying finales, at least one of which was genuinely surprising. It's all too common for horror to wrap up with a needlessly ambiguous resolution, and that didn't happen here. Not every joke in this movie hit its mark, but the structural writing was really topnotch.

If that's enough for you - if this is a genre that interests you - then you might consider stopping the review here. This is absolutely worth your time, and at least one of the segments would lose at least a little of its punch if you know the premise going in. So, if you're in the market for a good horror movie built around the holidays, stop reading and track this down.

For the rest of you, the spoiler-free section is coming to an end.

I'll start with the best known of the movie's installments. While preparing for his Christmas Eve run, Santa discovers his supposedly immortal elves are infected with a terminal disease. Worse still, the dead rise up as zombies. Armed with his bishop's staff, Nicholas fights back.

Needless to say, this is the campy segment. The zombie-elves are reminiscent of the deadites from the Evil Dead movies.

I appreciate that they merged Santa Claus's Norse and Catholic roots. This version of Saint Nick is part Bishop of Myra and part Odin: it's refreshing to see these elements combined on film.

This culminates in what's likely the movie's primary claim to fame: a fight scene between Santa Claus and the one responsible for all of this, Krampus. Without giving too much away, I'll add that I really like how that battle ends.

The second story line follows a family who incurs the wrath of Krampus. The demon follows them into the snowy woods, then hunts them as they try to take shelter in a church. The last survivor uncovers a secret behind the demon's appearance and uses it to take her revenge.

Like most creature features, this isn't really interested in building up sympathy for its victims. There's a bit of camp throughout, though the makeup on Krampus is stunning.

Next up is the story of three high school students filming a movie about a murder that occurred in their school the year before. They discover connections to the building's past, when it was used by a nunnery. This was an eerily claustrophobic ghost story, aided by some incredibly creepy nativity statues.

But the scariest of the segments is the last. A couple take their son to look for a Christmas tree and trespass on private property. While there, they lose track of this son for a brief period of time, and something isn't right when they find him. As this progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that they never took their son out of the woods. And by this time, the changeling has grown accustomed to its new life.

There's an argument to be made that this one and the ghost story might have benefited from being told start-to-finish, as opposed to being broken up. Interrupting these with sequences of zombie elves being decapitated did hinder their ability to maintain tone. On the other hand, cutting away from the changeling piece might keep it from getting too intense for newer horror viewers. The last few minutes aren't all that scary, but there's a section in the middle that's deeply disturbing.

In addition to these four stories, there's a little connective tissue, courtesy of a radio show host played by William Shatner. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a narrator - he's partly included as comic relief and partly to offer a bit of context for one of the stories.

All in all, this is a really good collection of holiday horror stories, all of which provide a satisfying experience without relying on obvious holiday gimmicks. Sure, there are zombie elves, but that story has more going on in it than just that. The Christmas tropes are there to serve the genre, not the other way around.

I got this through Netflix, but I'm seriously tempted to order a DVD for my collection: I can easily see wanting to watch this again in future years when the cheer gets unbearable. If you like horror, this one's highly recommended.