Paul Tanter’s The Night Before Christmas comes with a slightly confusing timeline. It begins in Woodridge, Upstate New York, with a scene ‘four years ago’, as Michelle Weaver (Sayla de Goede) and her bruised and bloodied partner Nick Conway (Simon Phillips) viciously murder 30 orderlies and doctors in the asylum where they are patients. It then cuts to present day, as we meet Courtney (Keegan Chambers), hiding out in New York City after surviving a killing spree in Woodridge – although this was not the massacre in the asylum with which the film opened, but yet another Christmas slaying perpetrated once again by Nick and Michelle (dressed as Santa and Mrs Claus), three years after they broke out.
Athough easy enough to follow, all this makes better sense once you realise that The Nights Before Christmas is in fact a sequel. For Tanter’s Once Upon A Time At Christmas (2017) had already covered the spree that Courtney survived one year earlier. Some characters here recur from the original, including the crazy Clauses, Woodridge’s now retired Sheriff Mitchell (Barry Kennedy), Courtney, and several other locals from the small town – even if they are not always played by the same actors from the original. The essential premise is also similar: in the build-up to Christmas, the deranged Mr and Mrs Claus commit a series of murders in Woodridge, while others try to work out what connects their victims.
More why- than who- dunnit, this seasonal slasher also has two new central characters, FBI Special Agents Natalie Parker (Kate Schroder) and Jack Zimmerman (Marc Gammal), who must – like any newcomers to this series – quickly play catch up. As they race to work out who else is on the killers’ ‘Naughty’ list, they are desperate to stop Nick’s campaign of carnage before he can reach his estranged teenage daughter Jennifer (Shannon Cotter), now under witness protection with her mother Lucy (Meredith Heinrich). Occupying much of the film’s running time, these scenes of police procedural suffer from perfunctory writing and zero chemistry between the agents, with the relatively full realisation of Natalie’s character serving only to highlight her partner’s status as a blank sounding board and exposition dump. They are also, for crack federal investigators, rather slow to connect some very obvious dots, and make some rookie errors.
Nick is a far more interesting and complicated figure, which should come as little surprise given that Phillips (who plays him) has been instrumental from the start in helping Tanter develop these films’ story. With his apparently random actions concealing a more deliberate and considered plan, Nick is essentially Joker in a Father Christmas costume – and on these dark (k)nights before Christmas, seductive, deadly Michelle is his Harley Quinn. Together they show an infectious glee in executing their scheme which, for all its chaos and cruelty, is a calculated vendetta motivated by genuinely ethical concerns – even if both are prepared to be “a little bit naughty”, and to leave a bloody trail of collateral damage in their wake. Corporate greed and neglect may in the end be confronted, but we keep being reminded that the ones doing the confronting are callous psychopaths as much as victims, muddying the film’s moral waters and mixing its message.
By the end, you can see The Nights Before Christmas straining to have another sequel – and indeed Tanter’s One Christmas Night In A Toy Store is already in production. Meanwhile, without ever coming close to the heady heights of the similarly-themed Christmas Evil (1980), this twisty psychothriller makes for a mean-spirited family stocking filler.
© Anton Bitel