Anthology films are always tough nuts to crack for critics. Do you view the film as a whole, examining how all the individual parts complement each other? Or do you focus on the aforementioned individual parts one at a time? Do you focus on both? Or do you focus on neither? Thankfully, the new holiday horror anthology A Christmas Horror Story helmed by directors Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan simplified this problem with an ingenious technique that I wish more films of this type utilized: they cross-cut the different stories. Instead of acting like a cinematic playlist where the stories are played in their entirety back-to-back with each other, they all weave together in a kind of hyper-narrative allowing them all to play off each other. In a flash of inspiration, William Shatner appears as a small-town DJ who pops in from time to time as a kind of Master of Ceremonies to obliquely comment on the action.
But unfortunately the film’s most admirable innovation doubles as its greatest problem since all four of the featured stories vary wildly in terms of tone and quality. The two best compliment each other about as well as oil and water, the first a delightfully silly, over-the-top thrill ride about Santa Claus (George Buza) battling zombie elves at the North Pole (complete with gleefully graphic scenes of carnage and one of the best damn twist endings in recent memory) and the second a deathly serious story about a mother trying to rescue her son from a changeling they encountered while chopping down a Christmas tree in a forbidden forest. Because of the cross-cutting, the incredible tension of watching a helpless mother try and deal with a murderous monster gets ruined by adjacent scenes of zombie elves calling Old Saint Nick a dirty c—ksucker. It’s almost as if somebody edited together the endings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 (1987).
The less said about the other two segments—one concerning a family being stalked by Krampus the Christmas demon and the other featuring a couple of high school students making a documentary of a haunted crime scene—the better. Both suffer from convoluted plotting, poorly lit cinematography, and ineffective jump scares.
I actually hope that A Christmas Horror Story gets a sequel because I’m not opposed to the film’s format or content. Hopefully the sequel will demonstrate a greater unity of tone and a full salvo of gripping stories.