“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” This may be true of chains, but it doesn’t really apply to anthology horror films. More often than not, one (or two) clunky components aren’t enough to sink an anthology film — provided, of course, that the good stuff is especially good. “The Raft” (from Creepshow 2) is so good that it sort of makes up for the lesser chapters, and “Safe Haven” (from V/H./S/2) is so freaking great that the rest of the shorts could have been junk and I’d still recommend the movie. (Fortunately they weren’t.) That’s sort of what we’re dealing with in the cool Canadian import called A Christmas Horror Story; one (maybe two) moments that just don’t work — surrounded by a solid handful of unexpectedly impressive goodies.
It’s Christmas Eve in the sleepy town of Bailey Downs, and all hell is about to break loose:
1. DJ Dan (William Shatner) cannot seem to locate his missing weatherman.
2. A bunch of stupid teens break into their school in order to investigate a horrific crime that took place a year earlier.
3. A bickering jerk of a family visits an estranged relative, only to butt heads with a legendary Christmas demon.
4. A little boy gets possessed by something devilish after his dad chops down the wrong tree.
5. Santa himself squares off against a horde of zombie elves.
What’s interesting (and admirably ambitious) about A Christmas Horror Story is that all five of the tales are grafted together as one inter-connected marathon of holiday horror — as opposed to being presented as separate (and therefore unrelated) shorts. Broadcasting from his booth at various points in the movie, Shatner’s DJ character is sort of the glue that holds each of the tales together, but there are also several clever moments in which the horror stories cross paths in some small way. If one of the stories barely seems to fit into the Christmas theme, that’s OK because A Christmas Horror Story jumps back and forth between segments so quickly you won’t have much time to think about it.
So no, an anthology flick is not as strong as its weakest segment. The “possessed kid” segment manages to bring a few new ideas to a very old concept; the Santa vs. Zombie Elves story starts off pretty obviously but ends on a very interesting, satisfying note; and the tale about greedy relatives sniffing around for an inheritance feels like an affectionate homage to the “Father’s Day” segment from the original Creepshow. Structurally and tonally speaking, A Christmas Horror Story feels a lot like Michael Dougherty’s seasonal favorite Trick ‘r Treat, and that’s meant as a compliment. (At least these filmmakers are inspired by the good stuff.)
Co-directors Grant Harvey, Brett Sullivan, and Steve Hoban (genre fans know them from Orphan Black and the Ginger Snaps series) manage, for the most part, to strike a firm balance between dark humor and gruesome horror. If A Christmas Horror Story suffers from a bit of editorial confusion in the early going, what with all of the stories sort of plowing into each other, just be patient. Right about halfway through the film, each of the creepy tales starts to pick up its own head of steam — and the big finale at the end is pretty damn cool, particularly if you’ve been paying attention the whole time.
Despite a slightly clunky first act and a few obvious moments you’ll probably see coming, there’s actually a lot to like about A Christmas Horror Story: there are several strong performances (particularly in the “possessed kid” and “greedy family vs. Krampus” stories), a few unexpectedly funny bits here and there, and a good deal of high-end carnage/gore/mayhem/creature effects work. (Do not mistake this for a kid-friendly Christmas movie.) Toss in some amusing quips from Mr. Shatner, one bad-ass Santa, several legitimately creepy moments, and the aforementioned ass-kicker of an ending — and you’re looking at a potential new addition to your annual year-end holiday horror-fest.
3.5 blood-soaked Christmas burritos out of 5