Max Causey (Jared Korotkin) would probably be on the Naughty List if he hadn’t accidentally killed the man who writes it one fateful Christmas Eve when he was just six years old. Flash forward 12 years and Max still feels guilty about his trap that sent Santa to an early grave along with the world’s Christmas spirit. But although Max buried Santa’s body all those years ago, he kept Saint Nick’s brain fresh in a jar, and thanks to a groundbreaking electrocution experiment he’s been working on with his brilliant friend, Paige Byers (Ophelia Rivera), as well as the body parts he’s been stealing from the local morgue, Max sees an opportunity to finally bury his own guilt and bring Santa back from the dead. The only problem? Once resurrected, this new version of Santa, aka “Santastein,” has something much worse than coal in store for those on the Naughty List…
This is the seasonal setup awaiting viewers in Santastein, the new horror comedy from co-writers/co-directors Manuel Camilion and Benjamin Edelman that recently kicked off the Christmas celebration early in South Florida with its world premiere at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival, giving horror fans in attendance a gory gift to unwrap whether they’ve been naughty or nice. From Krampus to Anna and the Apocalypse, we’ve seen a lot of inventive twists on holiday movies over the past several years, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s always room for more Yuletide terror under the tree, especially when the plot is this intriguing. By combining the accidental death of jolly old Saint Nicholas à la The Santa Clause with the electrifying themes of resurrection and creation from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Camilion and Edelman have tapped into a truly killer concept for a holiday horror movie.
We’ve seen films where the killer is simply dressed up as Santa (Silent Night, Deadly Night and Christmas Evil) and films where a not-so-jolly Saint Nick really is a killer (Violent Night and A Christmas Horror Story), but this is the first time I can remember seeing Santa as a living corpse patchworked together with swiped body parts and stolen organs from the morgue. It makes for a great, creepy visual to add to the long line of killer cinematic Santas, with this version of Father Christmas brought to undead life by an effectively heart-chilling (and occasionally heart-wrenching) performance by Michael Vitovich and macabre makeup effects by Kelly Annette Flores and Stephanie Johnson. Trust me when I say you’ve never quite seen Santa like this, and you definitely don’t want to end up on his blood-splattered version of the Naughty List… something that Max’s classmates (both his friends and bullies) find out the hard way when their Christmas Eve party is crashed by the killer Kris Kringle.
While it takes a while for this reanimated Santa to really kick into gear, once the carnage starts, it quickly builds up like a bloody snowball, with Santastein using his monstrous strength to punish those he deems naughty. Along the way, Camilion and Edelman cleverly pay tribute to (and subvert) key moments from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and other holiday movies, from Santastein’s chilling encounter with a girl on her bicycle to a ruthless reimagining of the “tongue on the flagpole” scene from A Christmas Story (suffice to say that Santa is a little rougher with one unfortunate partygoer than the firemen were with Flick). Some kills are executed better than others, and I would have liked a little more time with the supporting characters before they were crossed off the Naughty List for good, but overall, Camilion and Edelman fill up the stockings with plenty of gory goods and over-the-top mayhem bolstered by a thundering sound design that brings Max's eerie experiments to life and just might make you think Santa is creeping up behind you.
While it certainly leans into its fair share of seasonal absurdity, Santastein is grounded by an empathetic performance from Jared Korotkin, who plays Max with a palpable sense of haunted guilt. You can feel the crushing weight of the world’s lost Christmas spirit that Max now carries on his shoulders, making him oblivious to the affections of his best friend, Paige (portrayed wonderfully by Ophelia Rivera). This is a guy who literally watched his childhood innocence die right in front of him, and you can feel his desperation to bring back the magic of Christmas—and his own peace of mind—at any cost… even if that means “borrowing” a few cadavers from the morgue. And speaking of the morgue, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Damian Edwards, who absolutely steals every scene he’s in as Edgar, the local mortician who gears up in the precinct armory in glorious slow-motion and goes full Hot Fuzz in his vengeful pursuit to take down Santastein after surviving a close encounter with the killer at the police station. If this film has a secret weapon, it’s Damian Edwards, and watching his character go into Kyle Reese territory as he tracks down the Terminator-esque Santastein is truly “the gift that keeps on giving the whole year,” as Cousin Eddie would say.
Like any viewing experience, your mileage may vary with a movie like Santastein, but if you have a soft spot in your heart for feel-good holiday movies and Christmas slashers, then I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy with Camilion and Edelman’s feature directorial debut. It doesn’t connect with every big swing that it takes, but I admire each blood-splattered swing nonetheless, and I’m excited to see what cinematic creations Camilion and Edelman cook up in the lab next. If you’re looking for a horror comedy to watch with friends or even family (I had the pleasure of watching this one with my dad and we both had a blast) in future holiday seasons, I highly recommend giving Santastein a shot. This is a holiday horror comedy worth putting under your tree and on your screen. Grab yourself some gingerbread cookies, pour a generous amount of eggnog, and gather with loved ones around the warm glow of Christmas carnage. But maybe try to stay on the Nice List… just in case bodies start going missing from your local morgue.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Go here to catch up on our previous coverage of the 2023 Popcorn Frights Film Festival!