"proceedings do improve when the plot begins to take on a little more structure"
While it’s hard to escape from the seemingly never ending stream of low budget Christmas films at this time of year, you equally don’t have to look too hard these days to find darker filmic offerings these days either. This is nothing new as horror (or more specifically ghost) stories used to be a festive tradition, and in that vein we have Paul Tanter’s low-budget slasher Once Upon a Time at Christmas.
Opening with a scene in which a clearly deranged Mrs Clause (Sayla Vee) is locked in a police cell, we then get an opening credit sequence scored with a slightly off-key piano rendition of Jingle Bells. It’s hardly an original idea for a horror film to render children’s songs to create an unsettling atmosphere but it works here none the less.
Unfortunately, the next thirty minutes struggles to achieve anything resembling an effective mood as the aforementioned Mrs Clause and an equally deranged Santa (Simon Phillips) set about killing seemingly as many people as they can. The bodies pile up with alarming regularity, which leaves little time for any tension or build-up. The filmmakers fail to acknowledge that age old Hitchcock quote that there is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it, while the deaths themselves aren’t overtly shocking.
Meanwhile, we get to meet the small town characters whom will be key players later on. They range from a clichéd Sheriff (Barry Kennedy) who once had a drinking problem, a one-dimensional sleazy mayor (David E. Lee) and a group of teenagers whose wooden performances aren’t helped by them having to spout some truly ear-grating dialogue.
However, proceedings do improve when the plot begins to take on a little more structure. Ironically, the best scene is when a policeman discovers a murder we as an audience witnessed earlier, with some genuine tension underpinned by a musical box playing ‘Silent Night’.
The next murder then occurs off-screen with the smart implementation of a tracking-shot, even if the way it unfolds stretches the films thin credibility even further.
This leads to a pattern emerging – the killings aren’t as random as we thought – with the killers Modus Operandi taking on an Agatha Christie-like connection to a well-known Christmas song. To say what that song is would constitute a spoiler, but you’re guaranteed to get it way before the hapless police officers trying to solve the whole thing.
From then on, you can clearly see how things are going to unfold as the rest of the song’s lyrics play out through the killings. There are a couple of effective moments, most notably a cynical rendition of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’, but as a whole it fails to make any sort of impact. Neither scary enough to shock nor credible enough to be little more than a passing interest, Once Upon A Time At Christmas ends up being largely forgettable fair.