Welcome to Scared in Segments a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
While you might think seasonal scares are exclusive to Halloween, anyone who has felt the eerie chill of a lonely winter night can tell you Christmas is a strong contender for holiday horror. Charles Dickens set things in motion with A Christmas Carol, but Bob Clark drove the idea home with his influential 1974 film Black Christmas. He demonstrated that even that joyous date in December isn’t off-limits to terror. And, since then, the genre has enjoyed a number of Christmas-set slashers, haunters, and thrillers. Some have become iconic, whereas others were buried beneath the cold snow.
“While you might think seasonal scares are exclusive to Halloween, anyone who has felt the eerie chill of a lonely winter night can tell you Christmas is a strong contender for holiday horror.”
One film that’s recently become a sinister December staple is A Christmas Horror Story. Following in the footsteps of Trick ‘r Treat, this festive frightener chronicles the supernatural underbelly of a seemingly ordinary town. The residents of Bailey Downs suddenly find themselves at the mercy of Christmas’ dark side. Whether it’s a demonic child-swap or an ancient, yulish monster on the loose, A Christmas Horror Story reminds you that no holiday is safe from horror.
The Framing Story
Directed by Steve Hoban
Navigating us through the twisted, cautionary tales to come is radio host Dangerous Dan (William Shatner). As part of his late-night show, he shares four spooky stories on Christmas Eve. For some unexplained reason, Dan is curiously more omniscient than he or the movie lets on. The audience might naturally think he’s ‘in’ on the sinister going-ons, but as we soon learn, he’s simply an innocent bystander, albeit an all-knowing one.
Having Shatner portray the prudent DJ was nothing short of brilliant. He ably serves up weariness and fear without none of the hamminess he’s famous for. As a matter of fact, Shatner restrains himself even when drunkenly waxing poetic about the current state of affairs at Christmas. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful performance for a role that doesn’t necessarily require it.
To cope with the growing sense of dread he feels throughout the evening, Shatner’s conservative character imbibes while on the air. The pursuit for a nightmarish Noel has taken a discernible toll on our host. He’s never in any physical harm per se, but his alcohol-assisted anxiety mirrors the effect of overlapping these anecdotes. There’s absolute chaos afoot, and a person like Dan desires order. Be that as it may, there’s nothing of the sort so long as he invokes the restless Christmas spirits of Bailey Downs.
Story 1 – “Teens in the Haunted School“
Directed by Brett Sullivan
Although their friend, Caprice (Amy Forsyth), bails on them because she has to go out of town, Dylan (Shannon Kook), Ben (Alex Ozerov), and Molly (Zoé De Grand Maison) go ahead and break into their high school during Christmas break. Their objective is to investigate the basement where the murder of two students — one of whom is Dan‘s grandson — occurred one year ago. In doing so, they uncover the disturbing truth behind the crime and how the school’s history ties into it.
Our first offering is thoroughly heavy. By that, this spectral opener taps into the historical abuse within a former convent and what happens when these kinds of atrocities go unchecked. “Teens in the Haunted School” is serious and upsetting, and, frankly, not exactly a great indicator of the more glib and outlandish stories here. Yet, is it effective? Yes and no.
This and the next segment are intentionally drawn out, according to the filmmakers. In theory, the slow buildup should result in a narrative uppercut at the end. Instead, both the pacing and reveal — not to mention a possession scenario that feels incredibly violating in retrospect — give way to an ending that is both bittersweet and dreary. It might not be the most exciting of the bunch, but “Teens in the Haunted School” anchors the sillier elements of the film.
Story 2 – “Changeling“
Directed by Grant Harvey
While on stress leave from his job as a police officer — he and his partner discovered the bodies of the two dead teens in the school basement — Scott Peters (Adrian Holmes), his wife Kim (Oluniké Adeliyi), and their son Will (Orion John) illegally chop down a Christmas tree in the woods. In doing so, they invite something evil into their home.
Of all the four stories here, “Changeling” comes off as the most traditional. It feels familiar, but in a comforting way. That’s not to say it’s unoriginal, though. As he researched changelings for A Christmas Horror Story, writer Pascal Trottier noticed a deficit of movies specifically about these mythical creatures. The shortage wound up being an advantage because it meant there was no preconceived concept about changelings in the media.
With this and the previous segment being more deliberately paced than the others, there is a chance for more pathos. After all, the supernatural switch is not necessarily what undoes Scott‘s family. It’s evident early on that the Peters were not in a great state to begin with; the thread they hung from was about to get yanked. The patriarch’s own downfall directly comes from his not listening to his wife, who is concerned with her husband’s response — or rather, the lack thereof — to the murder case. Then, add in a changeling that challenges the sanctity of family. What has always been, is never the same, ever again.
Story 3 – “Krampus in the Woods“
Directed by Grant Harvey
Along with her family, Caprice visits her father’s elderly aunt Edda (Corinne Conley) at her remote mansion in the woods. To the horror of the old woman, her nephew’s son (Percy Hynes White) wantonly breaks a figurine of Krampus, a kind of ‘anti-Santa Claus’. The family is rushed out, and on the way home, they are stalked by an unspeakable entity who punishes all those that are naughty.
It’s safe to say the myth of Krampus became more popular outside of Europe thanks to both A Christmas Horror Story and Michael Dougherty’s Krampus. The horned demon’s fate as a modern horror icon was all but sealed. At first, director and producer Steve Hoban wasn’t all too happy when he caught wind of Dougherty’s big-budget Krampus movie. He and his associates jokingly wished him “many lumps of coal in their box office stockings.” Later, Hoban takes solace in knowing his film’s albino Krampus is unique-looking.
Since the release of the aforesaid movies, there have been other films about the fearsome Christmas beast. Without a doubt, none of them are anywhere as skillfully carried out. Harvey quashes his segment’s straightforwardness by keeping everything brisk and light in tone. It’s a mood reliever in the best way possible. Watching the irritating characters become fodder to the ill-tempered Krampus not only provides some devilish amusement, it breaks up the seriousness of the previous tales.
Now, fans of Krampus, do not fret. For the hellbent punisher of the misbehaved isn’t going anywhere just yet.
Story 4 – “Santa vs. the Zombie Elves“
Directed by Steve Hoban
At his home and toy shop, Santa Claus (George Buza) does battle with his elves, all of whom have inexplicably turned into rabid zombies. The bloodiness doesn’t stop there either as Santa’s then confronted by his archenemy—Krampus!
The final tale is as memorable as it is ridiculous. Our resident Saint Nick becomes an instant hero who single-handedly saves Christmas from evil. At first, it’s a discordant featurette whose silliness clashes with the severity of the first two stories. Santa is beheading elves left and right before duking it out with another Christmas legend. It’s epic and borderline self-indulgent. When things could not get any stranger, the ending kicks in the door and leaves audiences in shock. Definitely not what one was expecting, to say the very least.
Anyone keeping tabs on anthologies can probably count on one hand the number of solid horror omnibuses born in the new millennium. It almost feels like a lost art, but A Christmas Horror Story is the exception. It’s a labor of love that deserves to be a Yuletide tradition for horror fans. Having been made in a mere twenty-two days, the final product surpasses all expectations one might have about indie horror.
So even though Christmas has come and gone at this point, festal frights can always be enjoyed year-round. With its cleverly interwoven tales of macabre merriness, A Christmas Horror Story is one of the most shrewd surprises in holiday horror to date. And, unlike some Christmas gifts, this is one movie that keeps on giving.
“a labor of love that deserves to be a Yuletide tradition for horror fans […] surpasses all expectations one might have about indie horror.”
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