A Christmas Horror Story has a lot going for it. It's from several of the creative minds behind the Ginger Snaps trilogy (Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan) and takes place in Ginger and Brigitte's fictional town of Bailey Downs; it stars William Shatner as a drunk, hyper-conservative radio DJ full of holiday cheer; it features Krampus and zombie elves. Like any horror anthology, there are great moments and there are weak moments, but its framework is cleverly constructed, tying all of the vignettes together in an interesting way that isn't revealed until the final act. But there's something lacking in the spirit of the film; it feels low-energy and hastily manufactured. A Christmas Horror Story should be great, or at least great fun, but it never fulfills its promise.
There are five Christmas Eve sketches within A Christmas Horror Story, ranked here from best to most disappointing: Shatner's DJ Danger Dan, reporting glumly on a mysterious horror attacking the Bailey Downs mall during their annual Christmas toy drive (and he's really great here, bringing premium Shatner); Santa (a perfect George Buza) combats a zombie outbreak at the North Pole; three high school kids investigate the basement of a supposedly haunted school on the anniversary of two students' murders; a mother and father (Olunike Adeliyi and Adrian Holmes) bring home a changeling from the Christmas tree farm; and a dysfunctional family accidentally summons a swoll, rampaging Krampus.
Each skit, save Krampus, has something to recommend it. The DJ and Santa plots are the most entertaining, if goofiest, and the high school haunting is surprisingly spooky, offering more legitimate scares than any other segment of the film. The changeling story is rather grim, particularly in relation to the rest of the movie, but it boasts terrific performances and a poetic, if shoehorned, conclusion.
Krampus, on the other hand, has the most to prove in light of the upcoming Krampus, which is directed by Michael Dougherty, the writer and director of Trick 'r Treat - the film that is unquestionably A Christmas Horror Story's biggest inspiration. And unfortunately, it never does prove itself, a hollow and charmless short that left the usually cheer-happy Fantasia crowd silent - even when the final girl snarls, "Merry Christmas, motherfucker" while delivering a KO to Krampus. This should be a big moment, and it doesn't feel big.
There's a lot of that in A Christmas Horror Story, which is really too bad, as there's heart and effort and fun behind the film. It simply never gels like its predecessor Trick 'r Treat. Dougherty's holiday anthology is a film that radiates Halloween spirit; it's so autumnal and candy-colored that it genuinely doesn't feel like Halloween unless I've watched Trick 'r Treat. That's the element that A Christmas Horror Story is missing; a true love of Christmas behind the mayhem. There are dozens of lines like "You're expecting a Christmas miracle" or "make a Christmas wish," lines that serve to remind us it's Christmas, but it never feels like Christmas. The holiday's just an excuse for another horror anthology.
The film also suffers a bit from some low-budget CGI and editing reminiscent of a TV movie, but on the whole, A Christmas Horror Story is definitely a film worth watching; I only wish it were better. Bailey Downs deserves better.