By: Trevor Chartrand
While the concept of a homicidal Santa Claus has certainly been explored in slasher films like Santa’s Slay and Silent Night, Deadly Night, director Paul Tanter has found a surprisingly fresh approach to the ‘Killer Claus’ trope in Once Upon a Time at Christmas. This fun and festive Canadian B-movie will give viewers a reason to keep the Christmas lights on overnight.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, citizens in the small town of Woodridge become increasingly frightened when a series of murders threaten their livelihood – and their holiday season. Two psychotic killers have taken to the streets dressed as a Santa (Simon Phillips) and Mrs Claus (Sayla Vee), beginning a killing spree that appears to be connected to friends and family of a seemingly average teenage girl, Jennifer (Laurel Brady).
There’s a certain level of self-awareness to Once Upon a Time at Christmas to the point where the over-the-top acting and gore feel appropriate for the content. The premise is slightly absurd, but the filmmakers know it is and proceed with a *wink, wink* kind of approach. Stereotypical characters like the over-the-hill sheriff (Barry Kennedy) and his eager young deputy (Jeff Ellenberger) get a pass in this type of movie.
Most importantly, and as it should be with a horror film like this, the most passionate performances are delivered by the villains. With the exception of some monologues towards the end, Simon Phillips plays Santa to great effect, clearly enjoying every moment in the role. From his haunting “ho ho ho’s” to his menacing axe wielding, this incarnation of Kringle is extremely engaging. Similarly, Sayla Vee plays Mrs. Claus with the same level of shameless insanity, making them both a memorable killing team. Performances aside, this film must have been in production around the time of last year’s Suicide Squad, and there’s an obvious effort to connect the Mrs. Claus character and Harley Quinn; both have the same pigtail hairstyle, wear short skirts, and use a baseball bat as their weapon of choice. I’m not sure what the justification of this choice may be, whether the filmmakers are Suicide Squad fans or otherwise, but the oddly specific wardrobe decisions do distract from the film.
The most unfortunate element in Once Upon a Time at Christmas is the complete lack of practical gore effects. Violence is a big part of horror and if it doesn’t look real, scary scenes can quickly become funny. All the blood in this film is computer generated, and poorly at that. At one point, Harley Quinn Mrs. Claus even uses a crossbow that shoots digitally animated arrows. Sadly, the cartoon sticks she shoots at people don’t come close to juxtaposing with the live action actors.
Outside of the CGI gore, the film does try some practical creative camera tricks to create a unique look. There are interesting overhead wide shots, and even an impressive – if show-iffy – long take featuring a murder in the police precinct. The film is a good lesson in filmmaking – and could easily serve as an example of how some simple, but effective, in-camera effects can be executed.
Like every complicated relationship, my feelings for Once Upon a Time at Christmas fluctuated as time went on. I’ll admit I underestimated the plot early on, especially since the film opens with a series of random, generic slasher film murders intercut with a teenage girl’s day-to-day life. It’s the classic horror set-up with a crazed killer as he gets closer to his intended victim. It didn’t help that writer Christopher Jolley clearly doesn’t understand how teenage girls talk to one another, with awkward dialogue that’s supposed to feel edgy. As the movie begins, it feels straightforward, predictable and simple.
Then during the second act, the film caught me off guard as the pattern behind the seemingly random and needless killings became clear. There’s actually a little more going on than just arbitrary murders thanks to a fun, albeit campy, motivation for the killings. As the pattern becomes more and more obvious, the police investigators become more relatable because, it seems, they are connecting the dots along with the audience; at least, that’s what I thought anyway. The material presents itself as if the sheriff and his deputy have worked everything out because by a certain point, it couldn’t possibly be clearer how the killers have been proceeding. For a few fleeting moments, I was really getting into the premise of the film… until it lost me again.
When the cops finally ‘figure out’ the link between the murders, I was shocked to realize that they didn’t know already. I thought I had figured it out with them, only to learn I was actually way ahead of them… that they are just discovering the pattern towards the end of the movie. To make matters worse, the cops then proceed to explain the pattern in excruciating detail, as if the audience should be impressed by the little clues that were scattered throughout the movie. I can’t tell if the police are supposed to be stupid for comedic effect, or if the filmmakers underestimate the intelligence of the audience so much to think viewers wouldn’t have it figured it out by that point. I hope it’s not the former, but I suspect that’s the case.
It’s not going to revolutionize the genre, but Once Upon a Time at Christmas is an enjoyable fresh take on an old premise. A thriller with an easy-to-solve mystery, the film deserves a lot of credit for mixing the right amount of camp and cringe to create something that may not be perfect, but also isn’t trying to be. It’s unique enough to stand out, and would definitely make a great stocking stuffer for any b-movie enthusiast.
Once Upon a Time at Christmas screens at the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival on Sunday, November 26 at 2:00 p.m. at Toronto’s The Royal Cinema.
For more information on the festival, visit the official BITS webpage here.
Buy tickets here.
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