LETTERS TO SATAN CLAUS (2020)

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Studio:     Syfy
Director:    Emma Jean Sutherland
Writer:     Michael Zara
Producer:  Samantha Levine
Stars:     Karen Knox, Jessica Clement, Joseph Cannata, Michael Xavier, Franco Lo Presti, Juno Rinaldi, Alex Harrouch, Perrie Voss, Josette Halpert, Jana Peck

Review Score:

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Summary:

22 years after accidentally sending a misspelled letter to Satan that resulted in the death of her parents, Holly Frost returns to her hometown of Ornaments where she must rediscover the spirit of Christmas to stop another killing spree.


Synopsis:     

Review:

I love holiday horror movies. I may love Hallmark holiday movies even more, and I¡¯m not ashamed to admit it. You can keep the Gremlins, sorority house stalkers, and killers in Santa suits. I¡¯ll take the gazebos, wispy snowfalls, and small town baking competitions. Forget Saint Nick. It wouldn¡¯t be December without annual visits from Danica McKellar, Lacey Chabert, and the usual array of appealing actresses from shows you used to watch 20+ years ago. The TV movie equivalent of hot cocoa by a crackling fireplace, there¡¯s something cozily comforting about the formulaic safeness of a workaholic woman reluctantly returning to her hometown, rekindling an old flame, and rediscovering the spirit of the season by saving an artisanal cheese shop from foreclosure.

Syfy¡¯s ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± sets out to blend the best of both worlds with a Hallmark/horror mashup whose stocking gets stuffed full of tongue-in-cheek satire. Closer in tone to an SNL skit than a Lifetime Channel lark, the spoofs come on stronger than brandy-spiced egg nog, so set expectations to favor humor over horror.

¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± sarcastically sends up small screen Christmas clich¨¦s by starting from the same cookie cutter premise as every other indistinguishably merry movie-of-the-week. Well, with the exception of one major wrinkle. 22 years ago, little Holly Winters sent an angry letter to Santa Claus asking for her parents to ¡°go away¡± because they refused to buy her a Darby Dream Wagon. Unfortunately, Holly¡¯s seven-year-old self had an issue with spelling and her request ended up addressed to Satan, who granted her wish in literal fashion. When Holly and her sister opened presents on Christmas morning, they found bloody body parts inside and were given the gift of gruesome nightmares for life.

Back in the present day of typical Hallmark holiday territory, Holly hits the hooch to get through the grind of being a reporter on the most obnoxiously saccharin newscast imaginable. Things get worse when Holly¡¯s boss sends her to her hometown of Ornaments to cover their annual Christmas celebration. Cue the carousel of stock stereotypes who commonly appear in these simple seasonal stories. Holly gets mixed up in encounters with her gay best friend, her former flame who conveniently became a widowed father to a perky teen, a ¡°Black coworker with no backstory¡± (to borrow a Cecily Strong line), and Holly¡¯s old high school rival, who wears a ¡®Mayor¡¯ sash to comically identify her occupation like ¡®Diamond Joe¡¯ Quimby. Writer Michael Zara evidently spent time inventorying the pat people required by law to populate such plots, and worked it so each one could make an appearance in this flick too.

Naturally, everyone has a Christmas-themed name like Faith, Noel, Cookie, and Joy Wreath. These monikers might sound vapid to some, except I watched ¡°Christmas She Wrote¡± over the weekend and its love interest was named ¡®Tripp Wyndham,¡¯ so eye-rolling improbability is par for the course. ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± also uses this opportunity to toss in some in-jokes about basic cable familiar faces by calling other characters Candace, Cameron, and Aunt Becky. A couple of deeper cuts almost slip by before their winks are noticed, like referring to a ¡°very¡± white elephant gift exchange.

¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± had a hard time hooking me in the early going. Its schlocky style wasn¡¯t hitting the sweet spot. Cramped sets cheapened the look. Purposefully cartoony performances made the film feel more haphazardly flip than frightfully fun. Satan¡¯s killing spree came off like a mere detour as it repeatedly got backburnered in favor of recycled gags about serendipitous saviors, first wives tragically dying from cancer, and romance upon romance.

Then a weird thing happened. The more that ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± pushed its heavy-handed Hallmark-ness, the more its sense of humor started to pop. Between death by snowman, snickerdoodle, and department store nativity display, I started to see the sincerity behind the film¡¯s agenda to ensure no classic Christmas stone went unturned. When the movie made space for a peppy makeover montage in the middle of a series of brutal murders, the clever cheekiness fully clicked.

I realized that regardless of what might seem stupid in a given moment, ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± isn¡¯t any dopier than the flighty films that inspired it. That¡¯s by design, and that¡¯s not an insult. This is simply what silliness looks like when it¡¯s crafted by smart people.

Winning over viewers who understand the absurdity of traditionally nostalgic holiday romance movies, yet enjoy them anyway, becomes inevitable. Among other irreverent indulgences, ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± concocts a kooky ¡°kitchen sink¡± ending where a prince proposes marriage, snow falls indoors, and someone finds a spot to say, ¡°it¡¯s a Christmas miracle!¡± After all that, the film still has enough snark up its sleeve to close on a climax of Holly unexpectedly giving the cold shoulder to two battling beaus so she can make out with a random Jewish waiter instead. No one would accuse ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± of being subtle. With a steamroller this wide, it¡¯s almost impossible to avoid being flattened by its riotous ridiculousness.

Director Emma Jean Sutherland has the aesthetic down cold. Colored lights dot every blurred background. Inordinate amounts of bows adorn every wall. Chipper music bounces beneath every scene. Visually, and eventually conceptually, ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± turns into as guilty of a pleasure as an actual Hallmark holiday movie. The film has to be deemed as doing its job successfully on those grounds alone. Hallmark-specific jokes might not have evergreen legs to turn the film into a perennial favorite. As a one-time or ¡°every few years¡± watch though, ¡°Letters to Satan Claus¡± holds as much holiday cheer as any Alison Sweeney endeavor, making it an ideal palate cleanser for good-humored horror fans hankering for casual Christmas charm.

Review Score: 75