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Another Christmas has come and gone and with it we approach the final days of 2022. Presents have been vigorously unwrapped from under our trees as we spent time with our families nestled snug by a warm fire ingesting copious amounts of holiday treats and hot cocoa. However, for genre fans like myself, new horror films centralized around Christmas are easily one of the most exciting parts of the holidays. Thankfully this year, Shudder has graciously gifted us with a yuletide horror story that puts a clever new spin on the “killer Santa” trope with writer/director Joe Begos (VFW) ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas’.  

Twas the bloody night before Christmas..

When it comes to holiday horror films, especially killer Santas, there are numerous different approaches, some more strong than others. Many have tackled this subgenre with massive success such as the classic 1984 ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ and 1980’s ‘Christmas Evil‘. Others have chosen more unconventional routes like the 2005 horror comedy ‘Santa’s Slay‘ starring former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg as Kris Kringle. Or the equally bonkers 2010 Finnish horror film ‘Rare Exports‘ in which Saint Nicolas is portrayed as a massive holiday demon entombed within ice. With ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas‘, Begos takes this familiar holiday stereotype and flips it on its head by presenting us with a Terminator-like robot Santa appropriately named RoboSanta+ (Abraham Benrubi). Designed by the US department of Defense to replace the lackluster drunken mall Santas across the country, RoboSanta+ comes equipped with state-of-the-art technology with full range motion, a vocabulary of over 90,000 words, and military grade construction perfect for security defense; what could go wrong?  

image of RoboSanta+ outside covered in blood. Crimson smears white curls in his bear and hair. His eyes emotionless. His iconic festive hat sits atop his head smeared in the same red liquid. Behind rests a festive light house blurred by fog.
You better watch out…

Set during Christmas Eve, ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas’ opens with a brief sequence of infomercials, one of which explaining the high-tech features of our RoboSanta+ capturing that sense of early 80’s-90’s channel surfing nostalgia. We are then introduced to the films lead, slacker girl and record shop owner Tori Tooms (Riley Dandy) and her friend/employee Robbie Reynolds (Sam Delich). Following a cheeky conversation in which he convinces her to bail on a date she had previously scheduled a few days prior, a news announcement from the films local television station broadcasts the total recall of RoboSanta+ due to unspecified malfunctioning reasons. As the night of drinking and debauchery ensues with their friends Lahna (Dora Madison) and Jay (Jonah Ray), the films killer robot Santa sparks to life and begins his night of blood-drenched slaying leaving Tori and Robbie with a less than merry Christmas.  

RoboSanta+’s Nice List

Image Jonah Ray on the set of Christmas Bloody Christmas. Graffiti art is spray painted on the walls behind him, covering every inch, most of it difficult to read with the exception of 2 skulls on the far upper left of the wall. Bright orange, purple, blue and pink neon lights bath he screen in hypnotic translucent colors.  Jonah is leaning with his back against the wall dressed in a black beanie, glasses, an army camo zip-up jacket, and black jeans and shoes. His right leg crossing casually over his right foot as he leans against the wall.
Jonah Ray bathed in Neon

Clocking in at under 90 min, ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas‘ feels perfectly paced, starting off at first as non-stop grindhouse slasher only to quickly evolve into a tense siege film. Though the set designs are minimal, they’re beautifully lit and well enclosed; from the bar and sheriff’s department, to the local toy store, each location feels creatively unique and wholly utilized. As with Begos’ previous film ‘Bliss‘, visually, ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas‘ is a festive treat. His signature use of neon colors splashes the screen with vivid delight. Due to Christmas Bloody Christmas being shot on 16mm, the grainy film only accentuates the bright shades of red and green mixed with cool purples and hot pinks. The film’s high-octane energy and carnal slaughter is only amplified by the impeccable score provided by Steve Moore, emphasizing every chaotic moment happening on screen. 

 RoboSanta+ is especially vicious as he wields his crimson axe butchering bodies in grisly fashion. The first kill we witness after he powers on is cleverly shot through his perspective as we watch him slice through his victim in one fluid swipe. What makes his character even more terrifying isn’t his nearly indestructible frame nor the way in which he chops through multiple victims’ heads with brute strength, but rather the way in which he relentlessly hunts Tori and Robbie, like an unstoppable force. As he sustains more damage throughout the film, we see the masterful practical effects of his metallic skeleton and illuminating green laser eyes. The carnage candy is gruesome as heads are chopped in-two, bodies are flung like ragdolls, and blood-splatter paints our characters and killer Terminator Santa bright red. 

Riley Dandy as Tori Toom wielding a pump action shot gun. Her blonde hair drapes down the side of her blood-smeared face as orange, red, white, and green christmas lights twinkle around her. Each hand has 3 rings on her fingers (1 on her index, the other on her middle, and the last on her ring finger). She is draped in a loose buttoned up long-sleeve black, grey and white plaid shirt.
Riley Dandy as Tori Tooms in ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas’

Adding to the non-stop chaos are the strong performances Riley Dandy and Sam Delich bring to Tori and Robbie. The dialogue exchanges between their characters, though often vulgar, feel natural. This is in part because of the well-crafted script and on-screen chemistry between the two actors. Mixed with casual conversations of which horror movie sequel outranks whose and best metal albums, a sexual tension increasingly grows between the two until its resolve in sensual flare. Tori is especially captivating as she is filled with spit-fire charisma and an alluring personality. She is outspoken, wild, and the epitome of a sexually liberated independent woman who’s immediately likeable. As the film progresses, we see her evolution into a strong final girl as she fights back against her robotic pursuant, becoming her own Sarah Connor in the process.  

Where Robo-Santa’s Gears need Tinkering

For as fun as the conversations are between Tori and Robbie, their salacious nature at times can be off-putting. Begos isn’t shy when it comes to crude dialogue, as every character for the most part has the mouth of a sailor. There are few sentences throughout the film that do not incorporate at least one or two f-bombs peppered with some other curse word reminiscent of a Rob Zombie film. Though I’m not typically bothered by coarse language in a film, there are times where ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas‘ relies on it so much, it almost feels forced in some ways. This detracts from the natural flow of some of the conversations and can make their characters feel a bit childish. Throughout the first half of the movie Tori and Robbie are so wrapped up in their conversations while continuously drinking and getting high, completely oblivious to the havoc around them. The only character who receives ample development in the story is Tori, which is a bit disappointing as Robbie’s character has missed potential for growth. Other characters that are introduced such as Jeff Daniel Phillips’ (‘The Lords of Salem’ and31‘) Sheriff Monroe and Officer Smith (Jeremy Gardner; ‘The Battery’ and ‘After Midnight’) play no significant role in the film’s plot apart from providing a standout scene involving the town’s local police station and extra body count. 

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RoboSanta+ looking through a freshly chopped hole through a door. His suit and white curls still stained with the blood of his victims. His eyes still showing no signs of human empathy. Red and green Christmas lights shine through splintering wood of the chopped door.
Here’s Santa!

Speaking of the body count, when it comes to the deaths displayed on screen, though as merciless and creative as they are, some are recycled while a couple of others happen off screen. This is a bit disappointing as the ones we are shown are quite brutal. However, this comes with the exception of one for me personally. During the second act of the film before realizing RoboSanta+ is on the hunt for her and Robbie, Tori witnesses the killer robot brutally murder a small boy in his living room while she stares out of her kitchen window. What makes this death even more disturbing is the use of his body after the fact, as the prosthetic doll is used as a means of physical entry and a lifeless shield of defense. I am usually not bothered by most deaths in horror films but, when it pertains to certain deaths such as animals and especially children, I do find myself becoming withdrawn from the film. Though I understand these are moments meant to reflect the monstrous nature of the film’s villain detaching him from any real human empathy, for me there is a point where certain deaths feel either unnecessary or added for shock value, rather than true story progression. This scene would have been more impactful to me had his death been heavily implied or altered in a way that utilizes an adult character or, simply leave the boy alive to find his butchered family.

Merry Christmas Bloody Christmas!

Christmas Bloody Christmas‘ is a gruesome film with off-the-wall visuals and hypnotic colors creating a wildly unabashed yuletide slasher. Though Begos never answers the questions as to why RoboSanta+ malfunctions or why he is mercilessly stalking his victims, this does not diminish my enjoyment from the visual experience. ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas‘ knows what type of film it is and accomplishes its goal with excellence. The story is not bogged down with complex technicalities, the on-screen deaths soak the screen in blood, jaw dropping practical effects with enriched set designs, and dialogue that feels aesthetically natural. While the script can be extreme at times, Riley Dandy steals the light with her powerful performance echoing final girl icons before her. Filled with 80’s grindhouse nostalgia soaked in a neon color palette, Begos delivers ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas‘ wrapped in a gory bow that is sure to become a new holiday horror favorite amongst genre fans.  

Christmas Bloody Christmas‘ is now streaming exclusively on Shudder. Be sure to check out all of our other holiday horror reviews, as well as our festive yuletide tales of terror: The Twelve Nightmares of the Holidays; 12 short holiday horror stories written by fellow HauntedMTL reviewers and authors, including ‘Coming to Town’ by yours truly. 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Utah transplant TT Hallows now resides in Portland OR haunting the streets of PNW for the past 5 years with his spunky feline companion Gizmo. Horror and writing are his passions, taking special interests in sloshy grindhouse slashers, thought-provoking slow burns, and fright-filled creature flicks; Carnage Candy reigns supreme! When not binging excessive amounts of gratuitous gore, you can find TT Hallows shopping the local thrift and witchcraft shops (oh yes, he's a witch), expertly dancing (or so believes) to New Wave/Dark synth melodies or escaping the monotony of "walking amongst the living" with serene oceanic views and forested hikes. TT Hallows is an up-and-coming horror reviewer/writer for HauntedMTL. Step with me into the void...if you dare.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask

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Episode two of Goosebumps was honestly more fun than the first. It was dark, funny, infuriating and wonderful. Best of all, it has a killer twist ending.

Let’s discuss.

The story

Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.

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Cover of R.L. Stine's The Haunted Mask.

We’re introduced to a character we haven’t seen much of so far, named Isabella.

Isabella’s life doesn’t seem great. She’s all but invisible at school. She is responsible for taking care of her little brother. It seems like her only real joy is bullying people online. She was the person who tried to get Allison’s party canceled by sending the invite to her parents. Why? Because she is a very unhappy person.

Despite trying to get the party canceled, she decides to go anyway. At the Biddle house, a voice calls her down to the basement. There, she finds a mask.

The mask inspires her to do wild things. She wanders around the party, flirting with everyone. And she has a great time.

Several days later, after Isaiah breaks his arm, Isabella brings an expensive drone to school to get shots of the football team’s practice. Unfortunately, Lucas breaks it fooling around. And Isabella, tired of being ignored, says some awful things to him.

When her mother grounds her because she took the drone without asking, the mask compels her to do some awful things.

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What worked

I would first like to talk about the storytelling structure in this season. It appears that we’re going to be getting the events of Halloween night multiple times, from multiple points of view.

Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

I love this structure. It’s unique, and it allows for more mystery in a shorter period. It’s also more complex, showing just how much madness was happening, while just showing one part of the story at a time.

Another thing I appreciated was the evolution of the character Lucas.

On one hand, it’s easy to be angry at Lucas. Even if he thought the drone belonged to the school, it’s still kind of a selfish move to break it.

But Lucas just lost his father. We don’t know how yet, but we know from Nora that his death caused Lucas to start doing things like jumping on drones and skateboarding off the roof from his bedroom window.

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We all mourn differently. Losing a parent as a teen is awful. So while we can all agree that he’s being a problem, he’s also being a sad kid working through something hard.

And the same can be said for Isabella.

Look, we still don’t know what the adults of this town did to make Harold Biddle haunt them. But we do know that these parents are messing up in all sorts of other ways. And Isabella is suffering from parentification. She’s being forced to play mom at home while being ignored by her classmates at school. Even without the mask, I could see her lashing out and trashing the house.

Finally, I love Justin Long in this series. His visual comedy was fantastic here, as he falls through the hallways. But he also manages to be scary as hell. His creepy smile and jerky movements are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. I honestly can’t think of a living actor who could have played this better.

What didn’t work

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If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Every song seems like it’s just screaming what the characters are thinking. Which isn’t really what I’d consider the point of a soundtrack.

Maybe it’s just a curse on RL Stine. None of his projects can ever have good soundtracks aside from the theme song.

Unlike the original Goosebumps series, there were moments in this episode that did startle me and unnerve me. Which is wonderful. And while it’s still clearly for kids, it’s something anyone can sit down and enjoy. I’m very excited for the rest of the season. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die

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Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.

For nostalgia.

Cover for Say Cheese and Die, Goosebumps number 4.

With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.

So, how was the first episode?

The story

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We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.

We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.

The teens end up not being thrilled either.

Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.

Zack Morris in Goosebumps

While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.

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All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.

What worked

For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.

It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.

That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.

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More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.

This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.

What didn’t work

All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”

Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.

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It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.

But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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[USR 4.2]

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