Once Upon a Time at Christmas is a 2017 British horror film directed by Paul Tanter about a psychotic serial-killing couple dressed up as Mr. and Mrs. Clause. On the 12 days leading up to Christmas, the pair go on a killing spree, terrorizing the small town of Woodrige in upstate New York. As the body count continues to escalate, two local cops and a teenage girl try to figure out what’s behind the murders and stop the bloodbath.
As is so often the case, how much you enjoy Once Upon a Time at Christmas will have a lot to do with your expectations going into the film. This is far from a masterpiece and likely won’t make it into the hallowed halls of great holiday horror. But it’s got a certain charm that makes for an entertaining night, especially for fans of the killer Santa sub-genre.
The movie begins with a cold open on a police station jail cell. Inside is the Christmas edition of Harley Quinn, a sexy blonde temptress in pigtails and a skimpy Mrs. Clause outfit (played by Sayla Vee de Goede). She propositions the handsome officer, who remains unimpressed. She tells him “Daddy” will be coming for her soon.
Cut to a twisted version of Jingle Bells playing over an effectively creepy title sequence that does a nice job setting the mood of the film. We’re then made aware it’s December 14 before transitioning to two detectives, the Sheriff Jim Mitchell (Barry Kennedy) and Deputy Sam Fullard (Jeff Ellenberger), arriving on the scene of a grisly murder outside the mall.
As the officers review the evidence, including a piece of fruit left at the scene, we see a flashback of the murder with Mrs. Harley Clause swinging her trusty bat, accompanied by her one-eyed Joker, dressed as Santa and wielding a rusty axe (Simon Phillips).
We’re then introduced to a high school named Jennifer (Laurel Brady), her parents and her friends. About 5 minutes after the first kill, it’s now December 15th, and a young couple making out in a car gets burned to death on Turtle Dove Point.
The carnage continues at a brisk pace as we get closer and closer to Christmas. Though the victims seem random, it becomes clear pretty early on that the murders are connected somehow. When a team of FBI agents brought in to solve the case get quickly and brutally dispatched of by the frightfully festive couple, it’s up to Jim and Sam to try to put the pieces together to catch the killers.
Since it’s Christmas, let’s focus on the good stuff first. While killer Santa movies are nothing new, this one actually feels quite original with an interesting and creative concept. There’s a bit of a mystery to figure out, and it’s got a nice twist that gives the killers some motivation for the madness. The first part of the mystery, involving the theme for the murders, is one you’ll likely figure out long before the detectives do. The second part, involving the motive for the murders, gives the film some substance amidst the campy gore fest.
Although a little long, the film moves at a nice pace and wastes no time splattering the blood. The villains are entertaining as hell to watch and seem to be having a lot of fun, especially Sayla Vee de Goede. There’s also a solid chemistry between Jim and Sam, who do some of the best acting in the film.
Unfortunately, the rest of the acting is a little rough, especially in the beginning. And the script doesn’t quite deliver on the creativity of the premise. It’s super low budget and, despite some impressive camera work, doesn’t always look the best — especially when it comes to the special effects. There are gaping plot holes and inconsistencies, although that’s usually easy to overlook in a fun little slasher like this.
The movie seems to be quite self-aware, gleefully embracing familiar tropes and character stereotypes, while frequently winking at the audience. It’s rather comical (perhaps intentionally so) how hard the movie works to force the clues to fit into place — the ones that tie the murders to a very specific holiday tradition. I won’t give it away here, though it’s really not much of a spoiler. This causes the script to throw out any semblance of believability or plausibility. But perhaps you won’t mind seriously suspending your disbelief for some bloody fun.
In the end, this isn’t necessarily a great film. But it held my interest throughout and was unique enough to stand out from all the other holiday horror films. The film is being released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment on DVD and VOD on December 12, 2017, and it’s definitely worth checking out for a bit of B-movie horror fun.
The end of the film, which returns full circle to where we started, leaves the door open for a possible sequel. And, according to IMDB, it looks like one is in fact in the works. I’d actually be really curious to see what the filmmakers do next.