Maru Valdivielso as Rebeca Expósito
Ivana Baquero as Moni
Christian Casas as Koldo
Pau Poch as Tito
Roger Babia as Peti
In 1985 Spain, five friends stumble across a woman in a Santa suit who’s fallen into a deep hole in the middle of the woods. Initially, the group wants to tell the police about their discovery like good little children. When two of them head to the station to do so, however, the policeman on duty ignores them completely. While they wait to get his attention, a wanted poster prints out with what looks like the woman’s picture and name on it. The person in the photo, Rebeca Expósito (Maru Valdivielso), has stolen 2 million pesetas from a bank and gotten away by wearing a Santa suit. A split begins to occur in the group at this news with some wanting to starve her and hold her hostage until she tells them where the money is, others wanting to turn her over to the police for reward money, and still others believing her to be a good person who is not the woman in the photo. As time passes and the woman continues to weaken, the group gets more and more restless. Who is the woman in the hole? And how will she respond to their torments if she ever escapes the hole?
Where America had Masters of Horror, Spain had a six film series called Films to Keep You Awake (or Películas Para No Dormir). That’s also the name of the DVD set on which this was released in the US. This particular entry, A Christmas Tale (aka Xmas Tale or Cuento de Navidad) came from two of the people behind the insanely popular recent Spanish series, REC. In terms of Christmas horror, A Christmas Tale is probably one of the least blatantly holiday-themed of the bunch as there’s no snow or Christmas decorations or lights… just a woman in a Santa suit. However, it still has that “holiday” feel to it thanks to its central focus on children.
Director Paco Plaza seems to have definitely wanted to tell this story almost exclusively from the point of view of the children as the only adults whose faces we see in the film are Rebeca’s and the actors in a hilariously schlocky fake movie called Invasion Zombie that is central to the plot. The rest are either obscured behind items or facing away from the camera, giving the film a touch of the vibe seen in old “Peanuts” specials. The script is also a blast, capturing the feel of little kids playing games and sometimes not entirely realizing the consequences of their actions. This includes a scene after they discover the wanted poster where they decide to go by fake names inspired by “The A-Team” and Star Wars so the woman doesn’t know who they are, recalling those times when we were all kids, playing games and pretending. A Christmas Tale is also a movie about a very dark subjects (keeping a woman hostage, voodoo zombies, revenge, etc) that is kept from getting overbearingly bleak by its generally bright cinematography.
A Christmas Tale is not without its darker touches though. The effects used to show the degradation of the woman and her injuries from the fall are quite grisly as is a particularly gruesome death late in the film. The tension in a late chase scene is also masterfully done and a reminder of what the director and writer are capable of elsewhere in the genre. The in-fighting between the kids is intense and discomforting given how mean some of the children get. Finally, the ending of this is awesomely, surprisingly dark and something that probably could never be gotten away with on American TV.
The children themselves all give excellent, believeable performances with the standouts being Moni (Ivana Baquero, later Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth) and Tito (Pau Poch). While not the only likeable character in the movie, Moni is easily the most relatable and good-natured, always trying to do what is right while her friends only do so sometimes or never. Tito, on the other hand, is like a living embodiment of childhood. He’s hilariously obsessed with The Karate Kid and is easily the most comedic of the cast. Finally, and most importantly, Maru Valdivelso is amazing as Rebeca. It’s crucial that her character be both pitiable and dangerous, a combination she manages to pull off excellently with the dangerous, psychotic half becoming ever more important late in the film.
A Christmas Tale is a great, if minimally Christmassy, story that hearkens back to the simpler days of childhood. Admittedly, it’s a little lengthy, keeping the conflict over what to do with Rebeca going on for a bit too long. However, the good performances, interesting story, great effects, and blend of darkness and fun outweigh that issue and make for a fun, enjoyable ride.