One of my favourite things about Christmas isn’t the snow or packages wrapped in brightly coloured paper. It’s holiday horror films! There’s nothing like curling up in the comfiest of pj’s and turning on a horror movie that shows the dark, more horrific side of the holiday. Speaking of horror films and holidays, one of the best holiday horror films released this year is the anthology 13 Slays Till X-Mas, which embodies all the terrifying darkness of the holiday.
13 Slays features twelve horrifying tales that are connected by a wrap-around story, titled Digging Up the Ghost, from writer-director-producer and co-owner of Blood Moon Pictures, P.J. Starks (Volumes of Blood franchise creator). The film opens with a mysterious figure collecting and putting newspaper clippings on a board about murdered and missing people. Suddenly, we see blood splatter across them. “When I conceptualised the film back in 2017, I didn’t have much fleshed out other than I knew it needed to take place in a bar. Once the project became more of a reality at the tail end of 2019, did I come up with a lot of specifics in terms of who and why these individuals would be at a bar on Christmas eve. However, the bloody opening credits chocked full of cameo’s didn’t come to fruition until much later during actual production on the film,” Starks explained.
In the wrap-around, a group of five men, a cop, a priest, a schoolteacher, a paediatrician, and a man in a Santa suit, sit, sipping drinks and insulting each other in an empty, poorly lit tavern on Christmas Eve. The guys decide to resurrect the ye olde tradition of telling scary stories to pass the time. Starks said, “My grandmother Almeda, whom the film is dedicated to, grew up in a time where scary stories were still a thing on Christmas. Her and I have had conversations about it, so using that turn of the century custom seemed like the perfect catalyst and a fresh take for a Christmas themed horror anthology.” Each tale unfolds in twelve different director’s unique styles and includes everything from dark visitors, killer dolls, lethal holiday decorations, bad choices that come back to haunt the characters, and much, much more.
Williams Capps (Twin Trees) and Julie Streble (One Must Fall) are the directors behind the entry Like Family, which sees two sisters reunite at their childhood home on Christmas Day to celebrate one last Christmas before selling the house. But a shocking discovery soon brings an end to the festivities in a terrifying way. “My segment was mostly inspired by the struggles that holidays can often cause for us mentally. You may have to interact with family and do things that you don’t want to do, all the while needing to pretend things are okay, even if they aren’t. So, we took those ideas and added a supernatural twist to things.” Director William Capps said.
In The Devil’s Due, director Carlos Omar De Leon (Detour) weaves the tale of a father and daughter in mourning. In desperation, the father made a deal, and now it’s time for him to pay the price when a mysterious entity comes to collect. Carlos states, “Being a first-time father had my brain thinking of so many things about life and death. I came up with the idea one day after I read a news story of a man who survived a fatal accident, but his family did not.”
Blair Hoyle’s (Happy Endings Are a Rarity) instalment, One More Gift sees two long-time friends come together to exchange gifts. But one of the gifts isn’t what you would expect and quickly things take a dark turn.
In director John Mason’s (Contracted) instalment titled It’s a Wonderful Death, a depressed father is visited by a holiday ghost who reveals glimpses of his past. But the spirit may not have the man’s best interests at heart. John remarks, “It’s a very dark idea about someone at their lowest moment, but what shows up to help instead convinces them how much better off the world would be WITHOUT them. Can this entity even be trusted or is a much more sinister manipulation because you don’t know if what he is being shown is even real. There are a lot of layers to this.”
Next, two bumbling thieves make the mistake of breaking into the home of a mall Santa with dark plans. Luckily, the thieves get exactly what they deserve in Sean Blevins’ (A Brush with Death) Don’t Kill Santa on Christmas. “Decorating the set for Christmas and costuming our actors made it feel like we had created a real world for the film to exist in. One that starts grounded but was able to head towards an absurd and hopefully surprising ending to our segment.”
A children’s fairy tale becomes all too horrifically real for a family on Christmas Eve in director Jed Brian’s (Unlisted Owner) creepy and gruesome segment Kringle’s the Christmas Clown. “I have always wanted to write and direct a killer clown segment, so this gave me the opportunity to do just that! I was extremely excited to be able to make the sticky bloody scene come to life for all to see!” said Director Jed Brian.
In director Drew Marvick’s (Pool Party Massacre) Santa Claws, a brat of a boy, who is always bullying his little sister, finds out exactly how terrible it really is to land on Santa’s naughty list. “Las Vegas was only issuing film permits for crews of five people or less (due to the pandemic). I quickly rewrote the script to be shot in one day, with only three actors – myself, my son Degan and my daughter Parker – and just two crew members. It was a real Christmas Miracle we got it done.”
Eric Huskisson (VOB: Horror Stories) makes his directorial debut with The Scareionette, in which a relic of evil from a woman’s past is unleashed on her unsuspecting family in a horrifying fashion after her girlfriend discovers it boxed up in the attic, mistaking it for a Christmas decoration. “This being my directorial and writing debut was a dream come true! Seeing all these great stories from other talented filmmakers from across the country come together to make this film whole was fantastic,” states producer Eric Huskisson. Actress Roni Jonah stated, “It was a very safe, low stress environment. Working opposite Kaylee Williams was a dream. The makeup. The doll creature was SO good.”
In Alex Clark’s A Christmas to Dismember, an escaped mental patient wreaks havoc for a Sheriff on Christmas Eve, leaving a path of destruction and ruined lives behind him. “The story and script were written by P.J., if I had to guess, I would have to say it was inspired by classics like Halloween and Silence of the Lambs. Filming was both a blast and a struggle. I had a good time making this story flow, especially with the twist in the plot. It was a great learning experience.” Actor Sonya Delormier stated, “Everyone involved brought their A-Game, which made filming go really smoothly. So, between that and the welcoming atmosphere, making this segment ended up being one of my absolute favourite times on a film set.”
In director Brittany Blanton’s segment titled Dead Air, we are introduced to a rude, foul-mouthed late-night disc jockey who is terrorised by something far more malevolent than ghosts and monsters. “Making the film was an incredible experience that allowed me to practice not only my acting skills but also directing someone else’s writing for the first time,” Blanton states about her sequence. Starks added, “Of all the segments I wrote this one ended up having my favorite surprise twist as well as character. Wes brought that character to life flawlessly and Brittany directed that twist to life exactly how I pictured it in my head. “
A Christmas get together goes off the rails in Jingle Bellz, from director Shawn Burkett (Don’t Fuck in The Woods), when two uninvited guests crash a holiday party. “I wanted to have a creature in some form, so I used the lore of Belsnickel as my base for the concept. In the end, I had a great cast and crew to where we were able to knock out my segment in a day,” Shawn said.
In the last story, from director John Hale (10/31 Part 2), titled The Killer Caribou, a couple of poachers seek safety after they find themselves hunted out of season. “There was a lot of nervousness on set but as the director, I had to be prepared and immediately realized that the number one priority of my film was crew and cast members’ safety and well-being. We completed our shoot in one day and none of the cast and crew were exposed while on set.”, Director John Hale states.
When it comes to the special effects in 13 Slays, the filmmakers had to get creative with the film production being out of season, which posed its own challenges on top of the inconveniences and restrictions of the pandemic. In the film, you will see a lot of practical effects that will leave you impressed due to the incredible work of Cassandra Baker, Cody Ruch, Tabitha Blackwell, Rob Collins, Stephen Hodke and others. I will admit, I was left scratching my head several times as I tried to figure out how the effects were created. Cody Ruch (The Killer Caribou) stated, “It’s hard for me to call the creature effects complete and ready to go to set. I thought it was captured very well.”
Where would any film be without its cast? As you can imagine, 13 Slays has a large ensemble filled with actors from the best indie films, such as Sadie Katz (reboot of Blood Feast and Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort), “It’s always exciting to work with veterans in the horror genre. I feel like no matter how big or small the part is, I come away a stronger performer with a new film family.” The cast also includes Christopher Bower (The Dooms Chapel Horror), Katie Stewart (Wicked Ones), Rod Kasai (Frost Bite), Ian F. Scott (Five Wild Animals), Ryan King (Encounters), Francis Whitaker (One Must Fall), Steve Christopher (Trick & Treats), Roni Jonah (Shark Exorcist), Wes Bartlett (Hallows Eve), and Michael Merchant (Night of Something Strange). “It was a lot of fun getting to delve into the darker side of humanity, especially with a lot of talented people,” Chris Bower (Digging Up the Ghost) stated. On top of a large cast, the film had many producers including Wes Bartlett, Jerrod Brito, Chris Gierowski, Christie Swiss, and Amy-Beth Mason. Executive producers included James Christopher Neat, Tori Danielle Romero, and Kelli McNeely.
Lurking just below the surface of 13 Slays are themes about mental illness, cancel culture, consumerism, sexual assault, isolation, loss, suicide, and of course seasonal and everyday depression. I truly appreciate that 13 Slays is more than just some mindless fun and that the filmmakers were truly trying to send a message to the audience. “I never set out to make a social commentary piece, however, when you gather so many different voices and visions you create a stew ripe for touching on hot button or important topics. While the film is far from preachy, there’s enough there to make you think, make you laugh, and make you scared. We have a really good mix,” P.J. Starks said.
While references to classics in film is nothing new, particularly in the horror genre, 13 Slays outdoes any other film, featuring over seventy easter eggs that pay homage to classics such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Escape from NY, Zombie, and more. It warrants repeated watches to find them all. From a brief appearance by The Jester from the Puppet Master franchise to the faux beer labels Dawn of the Red, Bates Brew, and Reagent Ale, horror lovers are going to have a blast trying to discover them all. Also, keep an eye out, filmmaker Jeffrey Reddick (Don’t Look Back) makes a cameo as the news reporter Alexander Browning, named after his protagonist in Final Destination, which he created, “I was excited to be a part of the movie because I know several of the talented people involved. When I saw the fully finished film, I called up P.J. right away because I was so impressed with what they’d accomplished. It just goes to show you that a group of talented, passionate filmmakers can really make magic.”
Blood Moon pictures, co-owned by P.J. Starks and Eric Huskisson, set out to make the film in a unique way, by using directors from across the US. Each filmmaker made their segments in seclusion and then sent them to Blood Moon Pictures for approval. If you ask me, Starks and Huskisson showed an enormous amount of trust in the filmmakers they barely knew. “I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of talented filmmakers on our previous anthologies. Going into 13 Slays I had a Wish List of directors I’ve wanted to work with, and this film gave me an opportunity to do that. Essentially, I went down the list and reached out to them one by one. Thankfully they each seemed really excited about the overall concept. The film has a very diverse collection of auteurs, and the film is better because of it.” Says P.J. Starks, writer-director, and producer.
On top of the challenge of distance, 13 Slays, like many other productions during 2020, was hit hard by the pandemic, not only making filming and editing more challenging but also causing a big delay in the film’s release. Starks said, “There were a few times Eric and I thought the film was dead. Yet thanks to the perseverance and passion of everyone involved we navigated those waters and came out stronger because of it. Not to mention having made a film during a historically difficult time.” Of course, the dedicated filmmakers were determined not to let any of that stop them from creating something truly special. And they did. “COVID-19 completely altered how my segment was produced. I originally planned to shoot in Austin, Texas – when that proved unfeasible, I had to pivot to Atlanta, where the two cast members live, and ended up working as a one-man crew, shooting the segment in their apartment.” Director Blair Hoyle said.
Not only is this anthology awesome, so is its killer poster and artwork created by Rocky Gray (10/31 franchise). The poster features a deranged Santa with a large knife that he holds up in his dirty gloved hand. He’s definitely one character you wouldn’t want coming down your chimney! “What’s interesting about the poster is I pitched Rocky the concept back in ’17. Less than twenty-four hours later he sends me this incredible piece of art, telling me the idea inspired him. As soon as I saw it I knew that would be the one sheet and nearly three years later that is exactly what happens. It just goes to show you, no matter how much you plan you never truly know what will transpire next.”
13 Slays Till X-Mas takes everything that genre fans love and puts it all into one big holiday-themed package. It’s filled with dark humour, scares, great stories, and more gore than you could shake a candy cane at. It has all the makings of a holiday horror classic. It would also make a great stocking stuffer for the horror fan on your Christmas list. Luckily, you can order the Blu-ray from Scream Team Releasing at https://screamteamreleasing.com/collections/13-slays-till-x-mas-merch-store. It is also available for streaming on Amazon Prime, Spectrum TV and Comcast Direct. Keep an eye out as it hits more platforms soon such as Tubi and others. It’s a must-see movie!
by Kelli Marchman McNeely