Christmas Bloody Christmas (2022)

Aside from knowing the basic premise, quite literally every expectation and assumption I had going into this movie about an animatronic store Santa malfunctioning and going on a murder spree turned out to be dead wrong. Fortunately, one of those assumptions was that I probably wouldn't like it all that much, and...

Okay, let's do the spoiler warning right off the bat, because this is one I'm absolutely recommending to fans of horror, who might want to experience it without realizing what they're getting into. I was about to say that recommendation only applies to horror fans, as the movie's content is decidedly R-rated (both in terms of sex and violence), but this isn't exactly my go-to genre and I loved it despite... well... it gets pretty gruesome at times, even if the gore has an intentionally anachronistic look. (Editor's note: this is not a case where we are united in our opinion. I admit that I generally detest slashers, but this is no exception for me. I deeply disliked what I saw of this film and stopped watching - Lindsay)

That's not a criticism, by the way. This is a throwback to films of the 70s and 80s, and the effects are (or at the very least seemed to be) practical. Only "practical" isn't the primary adjective I'm drawn to when thinking about how this movie looks and feels. That word is one I want to hold off on, in case any horror fans are on-the-fence about that spoiler warning, because it's the thing I least want to give away. Let's circle back to that after we talk a little more about the story.

This might be a short section. The movie is light on plot, focusing on only a handful of characters as they contend with a killer robot hacking its victims apart one by one. After a brief opening with a series of in-world commercials that feel like a fusion of the ads at the beginning of Scrooged and those throughout RoboCop, we're introduced to a pair of characters we assume are going to be the leads: record store owner Tori and her employee, Robbie. We follow them as they stop by a toy shop where their two friends are planning to spend the night together. This also reintroduces the movie's mechanical villain, who was also established in the opening commercials.

It's worth noting that the movie has very little interest in explaining the killer robot. We're given some throwaway lines about it being based on military technology. On the surface, this idea is treated as something of a punchline, but the joke also has the benefit of avoiding the need to provide any kind of elaborate backstory. The movie doesn't care why there's a robotic Santa Claus hunting down its characters, because this is rooted in horror, not science-fiction. Likewise, it won't tell us why it seems to be hunting its leads, how it tracks them, or why any of this is happening. For the record, while watching this I didn't care or even really think about that stuff, either - I was too engaged.

Eventually Robbie and Tori make their way to her house and have sex, unaware the robotic Santa has killed their friends and followed them. The Santa-bot either doesn't realize which house they're in or randomly goes into their neighbor's house, where it kills the family inside (child included, in a notable departure from slasher-Santa norms). Tori and Robbie actually see the last murder through the window and try to escape. Santa sees them as well and heads over. It kills Tori's sister and her husband, but she and Robbie make it out of the house. Robbie doesn't make it much further.

By then a police officer shows up. He shoots the robot, which momentarily stuns it, though it finishes him off soon after. This gives Tori a chance to get away in his car - she's soon arrested and taken to the police station while the bulk of the town's first responders head to the crime scene, where they're eventually killed off-camera. The robot Santa drives an ambulance to the police station and kills the remaining cops. Tori damages it with a taser, but this doesn't stop it. Neither does overturning a car on top of it and blowing the vehicle up, though this does further damage the machine. Tori retreats to her record store, and the robot follows her. She eventually defeats it through a combination of methods and weapons, and in the process loses the fingers on her right hand. When the robot is finally destroyed, she stumbles outside, rolls on the ground, and releases a primal scream as the movie ends.

What none of that conveys, of course, are the emotions and character beats driving all this. Tori sees herself as a rebel in the vein of the metal music she loves. She considers herself strong, both mentally and physically: she complains the men she knows can't keep up with her mentally, physically, or sexually. Until the violence starts, the movie lulls us into thinking that Robbie is the one she's been waiting for. Likewise, we assume the movie will be the two of them proving themselves against the robot.

Only it's not that simple. When the violence starts, she's not the instant badass she (or I) expected. That's not to say she's weak, only that her reactions are those of a human's when confronted by something terrifying, rather than the action heroine I'd expect from a campier, sillier version of this premise. She panics, screams, and makes mistakes (as I expect we all would in similar circumstances). As the movie progresses, though, it pushes her further and her fear turns to rage. As the robot's plastic exterior is stripped and it becomes more clearly mechanical, Tori's methods devolve. Her weapons go from firearms to explosives to a sword to the elements themselves. By the end, she's fighting with animalistic intensity, and it's in this primal form she finally wins: primordial life triumphing over inorganic metal through rage. She becomes, in essence, METAL, and as such is able to defeat a metal monster.

The movie as a whole moves with the intensity of the music genre it's inspired by, which (I assume goes without saying) forms the soundtrack. The pacing of the first half hour drags a touch (we spend a lot of time watching Tori and Robbie stumble through town, flirting and arguing about music and old horror movies), but once it gets going, it's relentless.

And even those first thirty minutes have their charm. Perhaps the movie's strongest assets are two I haven't touched on: set decoration and lighting. The movie is infused with a neon glow that makes the world it's set in eerily beautiful. Add in the tactile sets (right down to the presence of actual, artificial snow, God bless them - I can't tell you how sick I am of CG snow flurries), and you've got a movie that's gorgeous to look at. I spent a great deal of the opening just marveling at how everything looks.

Earlier, I teased an adjective I wanted to keep in my back pocket. The word is "artistic," and - for the record - I still can't believe I'm using it to describe a movie about an animatronic toy store Santa going on a killing spree. But this feels more akin to artful horror than the movies it superficially resembles.

I'll get specific. While this obviously makes numerous references to the first Terminator movie, the movie I was most reminded of is Mandy. While it's in a different subgenre (this is a slasher, while Mandy is a revenge thriller), they look and sound similar, and both movies approach their respective subgenres as sort of canvases to explore emotion channeled through a grindhouse aesthetic. I don't want to give the impression this is as good as Mandy - I like this a lot, but... come on, it's still a Shudder original - but fans of that movie would be well advised to give this one a shot.

These visual similarities also serve as a good transition to the topic we're supposedly here to explore, namely the holiday elements of this film. While it's not the first holiday connection you'd leap to, the use of holiday lights to create an unearthly glow might be the most striking way the film utilizes its setting. That sort of ambiance of course has a long history in horror. In addition to Mandy (which, granted, favors red and purple compared with the red and green pallet of this), I'm reminded of clips I've seen from Suspiria (sidenote: I'm not proud that I haven't actually found time to sit down and watch that movie - it's on my list). Regardless of what directly inspired the design, it's a clever use of holiday lighting to evoke the tone of the genre while simultaneously contrasting that ironically with more wholesome associations.

But the yuletide aspect I found most intriguing concerns the way the movie uses its antagonist as a sort of symbol for the omnipresent holidays. This is, in a very literal sense, a story of someone trying to escape Christmas, a common reaction to the cultural juggernaut the season has grown into, driven by commercialism and cultural conformity. There's a sense in which we're all Tori (who, it's worth noting, explicitly states she doesn't like the holidays on numerous occasions), fighting back against an unstoppable object that seems to be waiting around every corner.

Okay, all of you are Tori. I sold my soul to the North Pole back when this blog started.

Perhaps you think that's reading too far into the subtext, and perhaps you're right. But I would respond it's one of my more grounded readings into the movie's holiday themes. Now let's get into the more outlandish ones.

Among other things, this is an example of a movie focusing on surviving Christmas Eve, a concept with very old roots. The holidays, after all, are set just after the winter solstice, when the nights are longest and coldest, so it's no surprise there are numerous stories centered around surviving them. Modern incarnations include everything from holiday action flicks to comedies to a horror movie literally linking those last two examples together. But this also ties to folklore concerning various demons, ghosts, giants, witches, and the like: the idea isn't a new one. Perhaps this was something director Joe Begos was thinking about; perhaps not. Either way, the movie serves as a great example of the trope and connects to one of the oldest traditions in holiday fiction.

Circling back to the idea that the movie is a fight against Christmas itself, it's also important to note that the holidays (and associated religion) are based on a history of violence. L. Frank Baum actually endorsed and celebrated the connection between cultural genocide and Saint Nicholas, and his novel The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus - a major contributing factor to modern Christmas lore - seemingly attempts to justify the genocide of indigenous people (consider this your periodic reminder that L. Frank Baum was a horrible human being whose legacy should be dragged through the mud). Transforming Santa into a mindless killing machine without mercy or remorse works as a sort of acknowledgment of the origins of the holiday in addition to the more obvious critique of how it's evolved commercially. 

Again, I have no idea whether the people behind this are aware of any of that. Probably not the Baum stuff (that's still pretty obscure), but perhaps they were thinking of more general associations between the holidays, cultural assimilation, and genocide in the early days of the church. Or maybe they just wanted to play with the already creepy idea of a robotic Santa - I warned you a few paragraphs back I was going to overanalyze the shit out of all this.

Ultimately, I don't think it matters, at least as far as the experience is concerned. Christmas Bloody Christmas is a surprisingly beautiful, engaging horror movie that pulls you into the bizarre world where it's set. It's also a rare Christmas movie that actually reads as being anti-Christmas. A lot of horror is sold as seasonal counter-programming, but it's rare to see one follow through on the idea that Christmas itself is the bad guy without having the protagonist come around to liking the holidays. That alone makes this stand out.

But it's the beauty and visceral momentum that really caught me. I watched this assuming I'd be seeing a silly, campy B-movie constructed around a joke. While there's some comedy here (the opening commercials, in particular, are hilarious), that's not how the movie approaches its subject matter. Instead we're given something unusual and fascinating.

I could go on. I didn't even touch on how the movie embraces sexual exploitation similar to the way classics in the slasher Santa subgenre do, but subverts those moments by prioritizing female pleasure. I also haven't mentioned just how good actress Riley Dandy is as the lead (why in hell isn't her IMDB page overflowing with upcoming projects?!!!). Hell, I didn't even talk about the Futurama specials.

But all that really matters is that this one's worth checking out. It's the rare movie that plays out completely differently than you expect in the best ways possible.