Not the first, worst or most tasteless yuletide film frightfest by any means, “A Christmas Horror Story” offers five interwoven, variably comedic tales of terror set on Christmas Eve. None is particularly original (though there is one good final twist), but they’re all reasonably entertaining as executed by three Canadian helmers, including veteran genre producer Steven Hoban (“Splice,” the “Ginger Snaps” series), making his feature directorial bow. Even if the season to be jolly does seem to commence earlier every year, releasing this opus on Oct. 2 does feel a bit ridiculous. Still, that limited Stateside theatrical launch (simultaneous with VOD and iTunes) should prove useful in boosting rental visibility closer to the relevant holiday; the pic should also rack up healthy cable sales.
The four principal storylines all involve forms of supernatural mayhem visited upon the unwitting (but not, in Santa’s case, wholly unprepared) on the night before Christmas. In one, three teens (Zoe de Grand’Maison, Alex Ozerov, Shannon Kook) sneak into a shuttered boarding school to film an amateur “Unsolved Mysteries”-type video for a class assignment, on the exact site of a ritualistic double murder the year before. Finding themselves locked in, they begin to experience weird phenomena before one becomes possessed by a malevolent spirit.
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The Peters, an African-American family, likewise poke around where they shouldn’t, trespassing onto forested private property to bag a free Christmas tree — even though Dad (Adrian Holmes) is himself a cop. They’ve had some domestic woes over the last year; his drinking and temper now threaten to spoil the healing holiday mood. But there’s a bigger, more immediate problem: As Mom (Olunike Adeliy) is quicker to grasp, something is very wrong with their son Will (Orion John), who ominously vanished for some time in the woods. Things get a bit “Trilogy of Terror” as the tyke turns troll (quite literally) in the apartment.
Striking a more satirical tone, at least initially, is the dysfunctional dynamic of the Bauers, spoiled white suburbanite types whose patriarch (Jeff Clarke) drags his carping wife (Michelle Nolden) and sullen kids (Amy Forsyth, Percy Hynes-White) to visit a wealthy maiden aunt (Corinne Conley). She’s not at all happy to see them, let alone to hear his latest plea to fund another doomed business scheme. But the visit comes to a hasty end when a figurine of Krampus, a demonic child-punishing figure of Alpine folklore, gets broken. Their hostess tosses them out in seeming panic. When the Bauers disable their SUV on the snowy rural roads soon thereafter, they find a very real, ram-horned, homicidal Krampus (played by massively built actor/stuntman Rob Archer) is now determined to make them pay for being more naughty than nice.
The most broadly comical thread takes place at the North Pole itself, where Santa (George Buza) finds all the toy workshop’s elves stricken by a plague or spell that turns them into murderous, potty-mouthed zombies. This Kris Kringle is apparently no one to trifle with when it comes to wielding deadly weapons, leading to plenty of over-the-top gore in a lively (if one-joke) campy action-horror exercise.
A framing device of sorts is provided by fabled Canuck William Shatner, seated in a chair throughout, as Dangerous Dan, a radio DJ and commentator whose between-songs patter grows increasingly maudlin and incoherent after a few too many holiday libations. Eventually his broadcast is further sullied by the need to report on a violent, evolving hostage situation at a local shopping mall. In the team-written script’s one genuinely clever, closing twist, that event turns out to be very much tied to another of the stories here.
Though they aren’t particularly original or sophisticated, all five narrative panels are relative slow-burners that take their time establishing premise and character before delivering competent gotcha scares — or bloody splatstick at Santa’s workshop, plus slightly more debonair humor in the form of Shatner’s amusing drunk act.
Performances and packaging are solid, despite a few uneven CGI effects, with decent production polish overall. While “A Christmas Horror Story” lacks the distinctive ideas or directorial style to be truly memorable, it’s crafted with enough care and affection to be modestly enjoyable — certainly more so than most cheesy gimmick comedy-thriller pics that end up in the horror-feature purgatory of Hulu freebies. The soundtrack, natch, features plenty of variably skewed takes on familiar carols.