On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a movie about a killer Santa and Mrs Clause. I'm not much of a Christmas person so I'm predisposed to enjoy a killer Xmas movie. This year Santa delivered the Canada-UK co-produced Once Upon a Time at Christmas.
In the days leading up to Christmas, the quiet town of Woodridge, NY, is set upon by a maniacal Santa Clause and his crazy wife. For twelve nights, they terrorize the town, first killing a mall Santa, then two lovers, then three members of the Frenchen family. If the victims ring familiar it's because the killers are taking inspiration from The Twelve Days of Christmas, and there's joy in finding what kind of mayhem each new day will bring.
As is the case with any proper Christmas slasher, there's a holiday-specific motivation, but the film raises the stakes by introducing a familial angle. It is Christmas, after all—a time for family. And as is the case with any proper family drama, the plot includes its share of recriminations, to the point where all Jennifer really wants for Christmas if for her parents to get divorced. It's against this unhappy backdrop the murder spree is set.
As Christmas approaches, the police are ever more desperate to catch the murderous pair. An unhelpful Jaws-like mayor does a poor job balancing public safety and economics, and the FBI's presence benefits the killers more than the cops. “A storm's coming,” says Deputy Fullard. He's speaking literally, but the figurative (and ultimately melodramatic) nature of his statement isn't lost on the audience, nor on the Sheriff who calls him out.
The movie is peppered with moments like this and I wish there were more of them because they're genuinely funny and they underscore the outrageous events taking place on screen. The film struggles a bit with the more dramatic plot elements, unable to attain the gravitas it's reaching for in some scenes, and a broader approach to the inter-personal conflict would've played better.
The plot, on the whole, is a touch underwritten. For a movie that's ultimately about family, it's the Sheriff and his deputy who drive the narrative. At times the film feels like it’s more about the police response than it is about the killing spree. Were Jen more involved in her part of the story, the film would have a bit more balance. As it is, Jen is easily pushed around, first by her mother who makes her get a job at the mall and then by her friend who makes her google her parents. Jen’s total lack of agency is further underscored when, at the end of the movie, she’s again encouraged to do something she doesn’t want to do.
Minor plot problems aside, there’s the issue of the film’s setting and location. Certainly, parts of Ontario can pass for parts of New York, but that illusion is destroyed when every car on screen has Ontario plates. Also, there’s a quick establishing shot of downtown Woodridge that was clearly filmed in a mountain town someplace out west. Are these mistakes enough to interrupt the willing suspension of disbelief? Maybe. Do they ruin the movie? Of course not.
But since Once Upon a Time at Christmas is a slasher movie, most people are watching for the killers and kills. And that’s where the film shines. The ridiculously insane Santa and Mrs. Clause are delightful and the bloodbath they perpetrate is inversely proportionate to their sanity. When asked about her role as Mrs. Clause, Sayla de Goede said, “My direction was to play her bat-shit crazy.”
She did at that.