Jan 5, 2017

IMDb: A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
Directors: Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan
Stars: William Shatner, George Buza, Rob Archer

We horror fans love, love, LOVE (did I say ‘love’ enough times?) our anthology flicks.  From the one that started it all, the 1945 Ealing Studios classic, DEAD OF NIGHT, to the beloved collaboration between Stephen King, George Romero and Tom Savini, CREEPSHOW, to Michael Dougherty’s breakout cult classic, the game-changing TRICK ‘R’ TREAT, we simply cannot get enough, and the stronger the tales and the direction and performances within them, the better the chance of an anthology taking its rightful place in the pantheon of great horror collections.

The style of contemporary horror anthologies have always stuck to one blueprint: several tales neatly contained within one central “wraparound” story, where the main scenario presents characters involved in situation that links them and the stories together. There have been a few exceptions, where the tales were all stand-alones, and only using the same cast of actors playing different roles in each story was the only linchpin.  (For a prime example, see the Karen Black vehicle TRILOGY OF TERROR, directed by Dan Curtis).

Dougherty’s TRICK ‘R’ TREAT changed the face of anthology-based storytelling, by obliterating the ‘hub’ of the wraparound story, and almost seamlessly weaving all the tales together, with characters and events all affecting each other’s inevitable outcomes, under the ‘umbrella’ of a central location, over the course of a single night (in this case, Halloween Night.)

How could a movie with such a generic title as A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY even hope to  measure up? Well, actually, it measures up pretty damn well.  That’s because rather than trying to top Dougherty’s efforts, directors Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan, made the very smart call to use his blueprint to tell a different set of stories, (thanks to no less than five different writers), all through their own unique vision on a completely different holiday. What ultimately makes it work and worthwhile to view is a nicely nasty surprise that awaits at the climax, tying everything up in a dripping, blood-red and slime-green bow…which couldn’t be more appropriate.

Taking a page out of another anthology’s playbook, TALES OF HALLOWEEN, ‘ACHS’ begins with a visit to the local radio station in the small quaint ‘burg of ‘Bailey Downs’, where local DJ ‘Dangerous Dan’ is holding Christmas court, (played with SHAT-tastic aplomb by The Man Himself, WILLIAM SHATNER.)  DJ Dan is filled with the Christmas spirit (and ingesting a liberal amount of the OTHER kind of spirits as well, to get through his broadcast), and not even the bah-humbug attitude of one of his station cohorts won’t kill his Yuletide buzz, since the fellow seems not the least bit happy about having to schlep over to his annual gig, helping raise money for the local food bank at Bailey Downs’ (assumedly) only mall.

From there, the story takes off to delve into four tales that seem kind of unrelated at first: one taking place at the North Pole, where Santa Claus (GEORGE BUZA), the congenial old toymaster and Chief-Joybringer-In-Charge is facing something of a crisis affecting the elves. The other three are all Bailey Downs-based, including a bunch of parochial school journalism students taking it upon themselves to try and solve a grisly mystery involving their school; one dysfunctional family trying to keep it together as they search for the perfect holiday tree, and one featuring an even MORE messed-up clan, taking a ‘special’ trip to visit an estranged relative.

Once it’s been established that Santa’s elves, who have become infected with a virus that kills them, are now coming back from the dead eager to wreak havoc and do a completely different kind of ‘slaying’, we meet the journalism students, Molly (ZOE DE GRAND MAISON), Ben (ALEX OZEROV) and Dylan (SHANNON KOOK), whose intention is to sneak back into their schoolhouse, a converted convent, and get footage for a piece they’re doing, to help solve the horrific murders of two of their classmates. Not exactly the most original conceit, it’s still done very well, even if the anti-climatic ending unfortunately renders it the weakest of the the four stories.

A lot more interesting is the story of the family looking for the tree. It turns out that Scott (ADRIAN HOLMES) was the Bailey Downs unformed LEO who discovered the bodies of the ‘investigative team’s’ classmates, and has been placed on indefinite leave ever since.  It’s his bright idea to take his wife, Kim (OLUNIKE ADELIYI) and son, Will (ORION JOHN), out into the woods to find ‘the perfect tree.’ Of course, that tree WOULD have to be in a spot cordoned off by a fence that clearly sports “NO TRESPASSING” signs.  But what good would a horror movie be, if people read and obeyed pesky signs? This is the one you’ll be thinking about, next time you decide to save money and go ‘communing’ with nature to try and find your own tree. Moral of the story: there’s no such thing as a “free” tree, and the cost is a lot more expensive than you think!

The last of the four has a family that makes the Griswolds from NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION seem like the Brady Bunch. Ne’er-do-well husband and father Taylor (JEFF CLARKE) has decided to ‘persuade’ the rest of his family to join him on a trip to the house of his cranky rich Aunt Edda, (CORINNE CONLEY), to have some family ‘bonding’ time, (read: to help him coax some funds out of the old battle axe).  As you can imagine, this thrills them to no end (sarcasm alert), and his wife, Diane (MICHELLE NOLDEN), daughter Grace (JESSICA CLEMENT) and son, Duncan (PERCY HYNES-WHITE), have no problem letting him know how ‘thrilled’ they are with this holiday plan from Hell.  Little do they know, that things can get one helluva lot WORSE…and of course, they’re going to. The great JULIAN RITCHINGS (EJECTA) has a quick cameo as Aunt Edda’s dour assistant, “Gerhardt”, who has a creepy connection to a fabled and frightening Christmas character…and you know it damn well ain’t Saint Nick. Yes, no less than “KRAMPUS” himself figures importantly in two of these stories, but we’re keeping this a spoiler-free affair, so I won’t even say how. Nice to see that the ‘anti-Claus’ has become so popular, that no less than Michael Dougherty himself devoted an entire film to him. (But THAT is for another review….)

As holiday anthologies go, you could always do much worse than A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY, and it IS nice to see the holiday get one more decent slug of scares under its patent-leather belt. Three stars for some strong stories, decent acting and that unforgettable twist ending!