Holiday horror on a budget: Critical reviews of “Unholy Night” (2019) and “Mrs. Claus” (2018)

Happy holidays, Tonstand Weader. We all can use a gift-me-up this year, and what’s more gifty than a double feature of holiday horror? A double-double feature of holiday horror. If we play our cards right, there’ll be two reviews of twin films this weekend. This blog is notorious for delivering…most of what it promises, so let’s see if we let everyone down this Christmas.

I mean, of course, keep our Christmas promise.

First up is the holiday horror anthology “Unholy Night.” Not the 1929 murder mystery “Unholy Night,” although that might have been more interesting. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The “Unholy Night” we’re talking about today concerns Lilly (co-writer and co-producer Jennifer Allanson), a put-upon nurse working the red-eye shift at a hospital one Christmas Eve. Although she’s trying to get to her mother’s place for a holiday dinner, she finds herself paired with an old man for the evening. Her charge carries a scrapbook that holds mementos from weird crimes of Christmases past, and he gradually shares them with her. The hour grows late, and Lily is torn between leaving the hospital and hearing the next story from the old man’s book.

That sounds like an interesting premise, and it is. There are hints of psychological horror, cannibalism and slasher setups to come. The problem is “Unholy Night” fails to grasp what it means to be a good horror anthology.

For example, the movie doesn’t have the right amount of stories. I admit that sounds pretentious, but ask yourself: How many stories is the “right” number to have within a horror anthology? Four seems pretty solid, right? Maybe three? In this film, there are two stories that come out of the old man’s book. Two-and-a-half at best, since there is an intro story, but any thriller fan knows it’s going to be tied to one of the other stories. That connection is so forced into the narrative that it can’t even be called a twist, which is another failing at how to construct this sort of story.

The writing is pretty bad, although the cast looks like they’re having fun. Everyone on set with some media experience seems to be a horror fan, so this was probably a labor of love, but perhaps they adored the spirit rather than the psychology of the genre. For example, there’s ample gore, but it’s both overdone and poorly done. Look, I don’t want to tell anyone how to make their movie, but if you can comfortably fit your budget in a tube sock, you might want to drop the fake body parts. If I can tell they came from a Halloween store, so can everyone else.

This blog is frequently a champion of bad thrillers, so it probably says something when even I admit this film is bad. I’ll say some nice things for a while. I like the lighting, but I’m a sucker for sets that use a particular color–green, red, yellow–as an anchoring element. The shot composition is a mixed bag. The directors and/or cinematographers (Randy Smith is sometimes both) favor extreme closeups, which can either be uncomfortably effective or just uncomfortable.

The writing sort of gets a little better as the film marches on, but it’s ain’t ever exactly Charles Dickens. The flashes of psychological dread and unease in Lily’s wraparound story are intriguing, not to mention the elf mannequin is nicely weird. Unfortunately, the more of those elements I saw, the more of them I wished there were–more build, more atmosphere, more clever punchlines, and less reality TV spoofs and fake severed fingers. If you’re itching for a recent holiday horror anthology flick, I’d suggest “Holiday Hell” instead.

Let’s pivot and go with something a bit more stable, like the yuletide slasher “Mrs. Claus.” Danielle (Hailey Strader) is not going home for the holidays–she’s going homecoming, which is a clumsy way to say she’s joined the sorority where her sister was violently murdered 10 years ago at a Christmas party by a disgruntled pledge who later hanged herself. But the past is the past. Danielle isn’t going to let anonymous emails threatening her life, nighttime visits by the campus police and a growing body count damper her holiday spirit.

“Mrs. Claus” is a sorority slasher centered on the relative of a hazing victim, no doubt a familiar plot for anyone who pays mild attention to this blog. The identity of the killer is not that hard to figure out, and a subsequent, campy twist is unsurprising. There’s some character actresses with horror cred (Brinkie Stevens and Helene Udy) for the nostalgia viewers. There are a few other familiar character types in the cast too, including the loose ‘n’ busty student, the campus radio host fascinated by true crime, and the “oh so smooth” frat boy. Thank goodness for those frat boys, actually. Since they’re supposed to look and behave like asses, when they overact, it brings a touch of levity to an otherwise stiff production.

If you can put up with low budget, “Mrs. Claus” hits the marks in the most passable way possible. The killer has a funny rubber mask and does holiday themed murders–strings of Christmas lights and prop candy canes are utilized nefariously–but all that’s countered with poor pacing. There are, I kid you not, pages of dialogue dedicated to wondering if Santa smokes weed, which abruptly transitions to a moment of tender emotional intimacy. Mark D’Errico’s score sounds like it would be at home in a slightly atmospheric first person shooter. The gore is still overdone, but it comes across as a little smarter than “Unholy Night.”

The most positive thing this blog can say is that Daiane Azura, as a don’t-get-too-attached-to-her college girl, comes off OK, or at least she inhabits her role like there’s some concern about her own agency. The character actresses do the best they can with what they have, as do the less experienced members of the cast. I feel comfortable blaming Troy Escamilla (writer, director and producer) and Derek Huey (cinematographer, editor and other producer) for most of the shortcomings film. It’s harmless horror, but you’ll likely be reaching for the eggnog halfway through.

Between the two films, if you had less than 90 minutes of your life to burn away forever and couldn’t watch both, which would I recommend? “Mrs. Claus” would offend you less as a consumer of media, but this blog would probably say “Unholy Night.” It is the worse film, but it has more heart, if that makes sense.

What’s that? If I were to recommend a not-so-recent holiday horror anthology instead? Well, 1972’s “Tales From the Crypt” of course. Ho-ho-ho.

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