Christmas and horror films go together like Christmas and actual horror. It’s the most wonderful time of the year; it’s the most frenzied time of the year. Occasionally, holiday horror movies like Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, speak directly to the season’s nerve-racking components, like gift shopping or hosting your whole family for dinner. Those customary year-end irritants have their remedies, though, like a case of Chablis or grandkids to distract the in-laws. But no one’s figured out yet how to fend off Santa Claus when that beloved personification of giving drops his kindness streak and goes on a murder spree.
That threat lurks beneath all the folktales, cheesy novelty songs and kids’ books, where Santa is a jolly rotund elf who zips around the globe, squeezes down chimneys, and deposits shiny gifts beneath lovingly decorated trees. From another perspective, he’s a bearded stranger who breaks into your house the same night every year and spends the intermediate 364 surveilling your hopes and dreams. That sounds, well, naughty, and horror has made a rich tradition of resculpting Old Saint Nick as a monster and a madman. The new Santa slasher Christmas Bloody Christmas joins titles of varying luster, including Silent Night, Deadly Night and its subsequent movies, including 2012’s remake, Once Upon a Time at Christmas, Todd Nunes’ All Through the House and Tales From the Crypt’s season 1 episode “And All Through the House,” A Christmas Horror Story, Rare Exports and Santa’s Slay. Christmas Bloody Christmas arrives courtesy one of modern horror’s grungy low-fi splatterfest virtuosos, Joe Begos.
If you’re here for overdetermined commentary on seasonal goodwill, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’ll accept a fire ax to the face in lieu of fellowship, though, Begos will provide. Christmas Bloody Christmas wrangles a whole lot of faces for chopping and, this being the slasher’s core entertainment, the movie succeeds. Somewhere amidst the butchery, Begos sneaks in jabs at the military industrial complex’s outsized presence in civilian life and the consequences of American jingoism; his antagonist isn’t the “real” Claus but a robo-Santa—a decommissioned army android retired from slaughtering the nation’s enemies abroad and refurbished as your friendly neighborhood toy-store display. Of course robo-Santa (Abraham Benrubi, a man born to give hugs) glitches out. Of course robo-Santa starts tromping around town hacking people to pieces. ‘Tis the season.
Slashers always find their way to a final girl, and Begos’ is Tori (Riley Dandy), a record store proprietor with a comprehensive knowledge of hard rock and metal, and a caustic tongue to match. On Christmas Eve, she tallies the day’s haul with Robbie (Sam Delich), her employee, sparring partner in musical opinions and obvious crush; he talks her out of a Tinder date, into drinks, then back to her apartment through the winter wonderland piling up on their small New England town’s streets. Cue robo-Santa, who gains sentience, leaves the toy store, and initiates rampage mode. He gives his first two victims their lumps of coal and goes a-hunting for Tori.
In an alternate timeline, Begos would make a wicked heavy metal frontman, and not just because he lives up to the image. His movies are close kin to fuzzed up power chords and minute-long guitar solos—a collision between mayhem and precision. Christmas Bloody Christmas highlights his strengths while neatly shaving down his stumbling points: He’s superb with an ensemble, for one, specifically in leaning on his broader cast as a tool for milking tension. The film takes a solid 20 minutes to lay down the first layer of its body count, kicked off with an interrupted toy-store sex scene; in the bloodshed’s build-up, Begos cuts between robo-Santa stalking through the aisles and Robbie and Tori taking shots while busting each other’s balls and arguing about, for instance, whether good bands go bad when they cut their hair. (Tori’s evidence: After the boys in Metallica each got a trim, they made Load. Case closed.)
Begos’ audience isn’t stupid. They know what the edits are leading toward. But the violent excess is worth the wait because Delich and Dandy are such a hoot to watch, bickering over trivial nonsense, acting completely uninterested in one another physically when it’s clear as day to everybody else that of course they’re going to fuck. That naturally leads into Begos’ other great strength: His talent for staging theatrically gnarly kills. Death and dismemberment comprise the slasher genre’s core entertainment, and Christmas Bloody Christmas delivers. Rent limbs, smushed guts and collapsed noggins pop off the screen with morbid clarity, even through the neon riot color scheme Begos embraces in his movies. He knows what his audience is here for and it ain’t a Benjamin Marra exhibition, though Begos’ lurid palette dovetails beautifully with the twice as lurid displays of mutilated human remains.
Christmas Bloody Christmas’ visual expression suggests Begos has grown from one film to the next, a pleasant process to watch. His last effort, 2019’s VFW, hints at his talent as an actor’s director; maybe getting a gaggle of macho dude luminaries like Fred Williamson, Stephen Lang, William Sadler and Martin Kove to vibe with each other doesn’t exactly sound like work, but their banter and bullshiting is one of that movie’s two pleasures. The other, of course, is the killin’. But Christmas Bloody Christmas ties both killin’ and vibin’ together with cohesion, carrying dread from the former sequences across the latter. It’s a lean, efficient, no-frills film, and that’s as it should be. Begos rejects pretense. He’s making his version of a psycho Santa flick, no more, no less. But the logline’s comic absurdity and the execution of his premise is so straightforward that Christmas Bloody Christmas feels fresh among the season’s horror canon. It’s a Christmas miracle.
Director: Joe Begos
Writer: Joe Begos
Starring: Riley Dandy, Sam Delich, Abraham Benrubi, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Elliot Gilbert, Josh Ethier, Jeremy Gardner, Dora Madison, Jonah Ray
Release Date: December 9, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.