When a horror movie has a holiday-themed premise, especially holidays other than Halloween, that’s often a sign that the audience is in for a campy ride that is going to play up the novelty to extreme proportions. Of course, that’s not always the case and some notable exceptions include the well-crafted, emotionally developed slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night as well as the incredibly creative and bizarre Rare Exports. Today, I discuss whether or not Once Upon a Time at Christmas falls into the category of holiday classics or if it’s just another poorly crafted product that falls apart almost immediately.
The story is set in the small town of Woodbridge New York where a maniacal couple in Santa suits (Simon Phillips) and (Sayla de Goede) begin a murderous rampage a few weeks before Christmas. Now it’s up to the local sheriff (Barry Kennedy) and a group of high school students to try and find out the reason for the killings and stop them before it’s too late.
When judging whether or not a film works, you really have to take into account what the director was going for in the first place. Clearly, in this instance, this is a film that’s intended as a fun holiday slasher, so judging it in terms of it’s realism isn’t a fair assessment. But even when viewed through that lens, there are some significant issues that prevent this from succeeding.
I don’t require a lot from a campy slasher to be entertained, but if you are going to ask me to sit through a silly premise with flat, generic characters that only exist to be slaughtered, then you at least need to bring the fucking blood. There are a lot of kills in OUaTaC, but for some baffling reason, director Paul Tanter takes a very timid approach to the violence. Even though numerous people are axe murdered, burned alive, or dispatched in other brutal ways, most of the violence occurs off camera or with very little blood. When the blood splatter does come, the film commits the egregious sin of using cheap CGI in place of a simple practical effect.
These kinds of half-measures are indicative of the film’s general approach to any remotely edgy content. This is perhaps best exemplified in the strip club scene that features zero nudity. Why even have it in there? I honestly don’t understand these half-hearted attempts at adult content that stop short of anything even slightly provocative. Why not just bleep out the fucking swears too, while you’re at it?
These issues of self-censorship wouldn’t be glaring if the overall film had a more solid foundation. Unfortunately, with so much cringe-worthy dialogue and uninspired characters, the film doesn’t really have a leg to stand on. Even for a slasher, the Claus’ near supernatural ability to appear wherever they need to is pushed to utterly absurd levels, and when the primary concept is finally revealed, it’s so goddamn silly that you’ll want to stab your eyes out with a candy cane.
It’s not all bad though, from a technical standpoint the film is well-crafted and some of the characters do put in solid performances, the sheriff and his deputy among them. The Claus’ also clearly get it and commit to their scenery chewing mayhem with the kind of unhinged enthusiasm that perfectly fits the tone of the film. And that’s the thing, there is fun to be had here and I wish there was a re-cut version that leaned into the gruesome madness instead of shying away from it. Had that version existed I would have wholeheartedly recommended it as a fun Xmas slasher, but as it is, this feels like the film equivalent of unwrapping a pair of socks on Christmas morning.