Christmas VODepths: What to See (and Avoid) On Demand This Holiday Season

This week, we’ll be focusing our posts on holiday movies, including several that we feel are worth putting into your holiday viewing rotation this year. Follow along here.

Christmas movies have become a massive industry in recent years, led by Hallmark’s assembly-line romances. The holiday season provides an easy, undemanding hook for family-friendly fables and gimmicky horror movies. This year’s yuletide VOD and streaming offerings include body switching, time travel, queer romance, and multiple killer Santas.

The Apology (Shudder, AMC+, and select theaters December 16): For much of the running time, Anna Gunn and Linus Roache are the only actors onscreen in this single-location thriller, set in a snowbound suburban house on Christmas Eve. Writer-director Alison Star Locke builds tension and emotional vulnerability via scenes that mostly just involve the two characters talking, as Darlene (Gunn) is surprised by the sudden reappearance of her former brother-in-law Jack (Roache), whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years. The day also marks the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of Darlene’s teenage daughter, and Jack arrives with some disturbing revelations about what really happened. Locke relies less on shocking plot twists than on the characters’ honest expressions of guilt, anger, and resentment, in a distorted version of a holiday family reunion. The central performances are both strong, walking fine lines between sympathy and outrage, and Locke delivers a satisfying catharsis without turning the story into a Lifetime-style woman-in-peril thriller. Grade: B+

Christmas Bloody Christmas (Shudder, AMC+, and select theaters): Indie horror auteur Joe Begos (Bliss, VFW) puts his spin on the holidays in this scuzzy, retro B-movie, which perfectly captures the grain and grime of vintage exploitation, along with the uneven pacing. Riley Dandy is excellent as hipster record-store owner Tori, who wants to spend her Christmas drinking and getting laid, but instead faces off against a homicidal robot Santa Claus (Abraham Benrubi). It takes a while to get around to that, though, and most of the first half is filled with try-hard Clerks/High Fidelity-type dialogue about pop-culture minutiae. Begos’ characters aren’t as clever or endearing as he makes them out to be, but Dandy is energetic and charming enough to carry the talky early scenes. Once the killing starts, Christmas Bloody Christmas is stylized fun, shot on grubby 16mm suffused with oversaturated neon colors (primarily red and green, of course). If it had been made in 1982, it would be getting a boutique Blu-ray release. Grade: B-

A Christmas Karen (VOD, Pluto TV, and Hoopla): The idea of replacing a Scrooge with a Karen in the familiar story of A Christmas Carol doesn’t sound like it could sustain a feature film, and this plodding comedy doesn’t challenge that notion. Still, it’s better than it could have been, and star Michele Simms successfully embodies the meme-fueled archetype of the entitled upper-middle-class middle-aged white woman. Simms’ Karen is a single woman in Florida suburbia, whose life consists of wine, casual bigotry, and always insisting on talking to the manager. She’s visited by the standard three ghosts on Christmas Eve, who show her the error of her ways. Directors Jon Binkowski and Lisa Enos Smith throw in a few clever self-aware jokes, but the concept quickly wears thin, and the efforts to make this Karen into a well-rounded, even sympathetic character go against the meme’s inherent social commentary. The result is neither effective satire nor a satisfying version of a well-worn holiday tale. Grade: C

The Christmas Tapes (VOD December 16): It seems inevitable that the V/H/S found-footage horror anthology series will eventually produce a Christmas installment, which presumably would be better than this monotonous V/H/S knockoff. The Room’s Greg Sestero stars in a wraparound segment as a holiday home invader who forces a family to watch VHS tapes of various Christmas terrors. Writer-directors Robert Livings and Randy Nundlall Jr. rely on plenty of filler, especially in the lengthy final segment, in which a couple discovers a potential paranormal presence in their new house. In each, repetitive dialogue marks time until brief climactic bursts of violence, which are never worth the wait. Unlike in the V/H/S movies, there isn’t much of an old-school video aesthetic, beyond a few transitional bits of static. With the same creative team on every chapter, there’s also little variety to the stories or their approach to the holiday themes. A few hammy performances don’t make up for the shoddy writing and complete absence of scares. Grade: C-

A Family Matters Christmas (VOD and Hoopla): Former Family Matters stars Kelly Shanygne Williams and Jo Marie Payton get top billing, but this misguided family comedy has nothing to do with the 1990s TGIF sitcom. Williams and Payton appear briefly in a framing sequence, as the respective mother and grandmother of a pair of bickering siblings who need to be taught a lesson in family togetherness. Their grandmother reads them the story of the unheralded Christmas spirit Alternis (Stephen Fisher), who encourages family unity by causing relatives to switch bodies. He works his magic on a trio of soon-to-be-step-siblings, and the various gender/age reconfigurations lead to far too many awkward inferences and encounters that the filmmakers aren’t equipped to unpack (not to mention a bizarre subplot about the kids’ man-crazy aunt being horny for Alternis). The acting is weak, making it tough to tell which swapped character is which, even after multiple reminders. It’s a drawn-out, poorly realized journey toward some muddled moral messages. Grade: D+

The Killing Tree (VOD and Tubi): On the first anniversary of her parents’ murder by a Christmas-obsessed serial killer, Faith (Sarah Alexandra Marks) naturally decides to throw a Christmas party in the same house where they were killed. Conveniently on that same night, dead killer Clayton Slayter (Marcus Massey) is resurrected by his wife/accomplice, although she accidentally traps his spirit inside a Christmas tree. So Slayter the tree crashes Faith’s party, hoping to finish the job he started when he killed her parents. Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield (who went viral with his Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey trailer) doesn’t hold back on showing the evil tree, which is sometimes a clumsy performer in a costume, and sometimes a glossy CGI effect, although the two are never the same size. The talkative Slayter has a snide Chucky vibe, but most of the dialogue focuses on tedious personal drama, and Frake-Waterfield undermines the horror with a cop-out ending that turns the movie into a glum meditation on grief. Grade: C

Merry & Gay (DIVABoxOfficeTV): The first original production from a new streaming service and VOD outlet devoted to LGBTQ content, this Christmas romance offers a queer-focused take on the traditional Hallmark-style love story. Set in a small Tennessee town where there’s no homophobia and everyone respects everyone else’s pronouns, Merry & Gay stars pop singer Dia Frampton as Broadway performer Becca, who returns home to quaint Evergreen for the holidays and reconnects with her nonbinary high school sweetheart Sam (Andi René Christensen). Becca is a big-time stage star, while Sam is just a small-town bar owner, but the pair’s meddling moms are determined to make them see that they’re perfect for each other. The romance is predictable, the conflict is contrived, the production values are low, and the supporting characters are weak, although Frampton and Chistensen have solid chemistry, and there are some catchy songs. It’s heartening to see this kind of inclusivity in a lightweight holiday romance, even if the final product is largely forgettable. Grade: C+

Mistletoe Time Machine (Tubi): Title aside, the Christmas content is fairly minimal in this good-natured but dull comedy about three friends renewing their bond by traveling back in time to their teenage years. It’s not even actual mistletoe that causes thirtysomethings Ishani (Megha Sandhu), Mei-Ling (Erika Prevost), and Taijah (Alicia Richardson) to wake up one day as their teenage selves. Rather, a mischievous magical Santa/bartender serves them a cocktail called a mistletoe time machine, sending them back to 2008 to re-do the disastrous holiday talent show performance that initially tore them apart. They learn some basic lessons about friendship and following their dreams, and Ishani’s romantic subplot refreshingly never overshadows the focus on the core trio. But it also gets lost among a proliferation of other subplots that dilute the simple message and core dynamic. The low budget allows for limited period detail, and the characters’ climactic original song is terrible, but the likable stars put all their energy into propping up the shaky narrative. Grade: C

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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