Every year, there’s an attempt to recreate the success of Gremlins by setting a horror movie in the controversial time of Christmas – cementing an ideal contrast between joy and suffering. It’s a fun idea, but rarely expands into greatness. Even studio movies (most recently, the painfully inadequate Better Watch Out) don’t excel in this specific and undesired sub-genre. It’s a wonder why filmmakers bother. But British director Paul Tanter has joined Christmas-based horror catalogue with his latest movie Once Upon A Time at Christmas.
In the small, snow-tipped town of Woodbridge, two killers are on the loose – dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Mrs. Claus (Sayla de Goede) carries a baseball bat and Santa (Simon Phillips) wields an axe, striking their victims over the 12 days of Christmas. Sheriff Mitchell (Barry Kennedy) is determined to find these eccentric murderers but is obstructed at every turn by the Mayor, who’s desperate for the town’s festivities to continue. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Claus are picking off the friends and acquaintances of Jennifer (Laurel Brady), a teenage girl frightened for her life. Terror ensues.
Bad movies are usually divided into two categories: fun or flat. Once Upon A Time… starts off fun with some questionable dialogue, ludicrous special effects, and characters barely pushing one dimension. But that enjoyment fades as the film continues, feeling like a heavy trudge through eggnog. Screenwriter Christopher Jolley gives us golden lines such as “Still haven’t done my shopping, I don’t need three murders” and “So what are you gonna do about my geese!?”, but they become so numerous that the mediocrity isn’t funny anymore. It’s also patently clear that the dialogue between teenage girls was written by a none-the-wiser male. And once these characters show no sign of developing, we lost interest in the story all together. Even the murders are flat.
Jolley and Tanter also love to imitate their favourite movies, as if they’re playing an elaborate and expensive game of charades. They clumsily insert the crazed faces of Jack Torrance onto their Santa as well as the moral dilemma faced by Batman in The Dark Knight (even using similar props). Worst of all, the character of Mrs. Claus is a badly-sketched version of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn – from the blonde pigtails to the baseball bat and bubble gum (as well as the questionable accent). If there’s one movie in recent times that shouldn’t be copied, it’s Suicide Squad.
The film does provide some half-decent performances and Daryl Gilmore’s cinematography is thankfully professional (aside from the excessive drone shots), which is probably why Lionsgate agreed to distribute it. Its technical competence prevents the film from becoming completely unwatchable.
Once Upon A Time at Christmas can be entertainingly terrible, but can’t escape its hideous script and unoriginal direction. It’s a painful experience to be endured, even more than the swinging axe of Santa Claus. There are many Christmas movies to avoid this year – make sure this is one of them.
Once Upon A Time at Christmas is released on 12th December.