Michael Briskett (Steven Hubbell) awakens in a dark room with plastic sheets covered in blood hung behind him. It’s imagery you’ve seen countless times in horror films—butcher accoutrement readied for torture porn carnage. But writer/director Ryan Nelson (alongside Beth Levy Nelson as co-writer) is only giving us a tease of what’s to come before rewinding two days to show the unfortunate circumstances that led poor Michael to an unknown basement decorated for Christmas. First we have to meet his douchebag boss Andy Robillard (Cole Gleason) as he assigns an impossible task during the holiday season. Then it’s the office’s latest hire Cindy (Casey O’Keefe), too perky and idealistic for the soul-crushing grind cubicle life provides. The former risks ruining Michael’s yuletide buzz, the latter saving it.
Mercy Christmas initially appears as though it will be full of saccharine hokum with nice guy loner Michael innocently blushing as Cindy not only gives him the time of day (when literally no one else in his life will), but also genuinely seems to enjoy his company before inviting him to her family’s home for Christmas cheer. Hubbell could give you a toothache with that embarrassed smile and “aw shucks” attitude if not for the sweat on his brow in response to Robillard’s binder of analytics. There’s something about his not just taking it with a “Yes, sir” that helps the whole situation from unraveling before the absurdity can officially arrive. It tells us that he’s not solely a kiss-ass. He’s cognizant that he’s being set-up to fail.
Before we can truly peg him as pushover or overachiever, however, Nelson decides to supply a complete 180-degree turn in tone with a montage of brutal kidnappings and murder. You could get whiplash from how quickly he moves from Michael’s giddy excitement to Katherine (Whitney Nielsen), Eddie (D.J. Hale), and Clark’s (Steven T. Bartlett) violent introductions. How they fit with Michael and Cindy’s peppy sing-along road trip is still very much an unknown, but we assume the collision will prove nothing if not unique. The next thing we know a spiked glass of eggnog is at Michael’s lips while surrounded by Cindy’s strangely over-the-top family (David Ruprecht’s father Abe, Gwen Van Dam’s Granny, Ryan Boyd’s brother Bart, and Joseph Keane’s ex Phillip). Finally the promised cannibalism can commence.
And boy does it ever. With pineapple-topped legs roasting and kidney-infused gravy simmering, there’s also the jovial small talk between father and son as one holds a victim down and the other cuts through bone with a cleaver. Nelson isn’t interested in showing this stuff in a grotesque, Texas Chainsaw Massacre way, though. He instead revels in a depiction that looks as normal as our own holiday dinner preparations. Meat must be tenderized, dessert recipes chosen, and clean linen laid out in pristine fashion. And with a game on TV and conversations had concerning business dealings and potential romances, you can see why Cindy’s family so loves this time of year with everyone coming together. You also see why Michael has always yearned to experience that feeling himself.
So what if his first foray in big-time holiday tradition sees him as the feast? Obviously he cares plenty, especially when he isn’t even allowed the time to fear his impending death with that deadline still looming (there’s a reason why this remains a plot point). He wants to live. He doesn’t want Christmas to lose its sheen of love to a nightmarish last hoorah that sees him tied up in lights and locked in a basement. It’s not like escape will be easy, though. Maybe Cindy will prove unlike the rest of her immoral relatives. Maybe a surprise guest (Dakota Shepard’s Denise) will prove to be an ally to those held captive. Or maybe these potential sympathizers are red herrings that reveal Michael as very much alone.
To say more about the plot would ruin some surprises, so I’ll leave those details to the film itself. All I’ll say is that Nelson effectively mixes genre tropes with the mundane life of an office worker. He combines a psychological horror scenario (office work futility) that’s ripe with humor and a graphic horror aesthetic (prisoners of a cannibalistic clan) to embrace the absurdity inherent to both. It’s fun to hear Granny chastise Cindy for not getting the legs in the oven soon enough. It’s great to see Ruprecht’s Abe be so animated and bubbly before someone talks back in a way that makes him stiffen with rage. Just as the stress of elaborate plans hits us, Cindy’s home becomes a hotbed of anxiety, paranoia, and temper.
The whole is far from perfect with many situations unfolding in ways that facilitate easy gags rather than realism, but I highly doubt Nelson and company care about suspension of disbelief. If anything they need disbelief because the pure insanity of what’s onscreen demands that we live in the moment, ignoring plot holes and conveniences because their ability to set-up jokes renders authenticity moot. That’s the beauty of horror comedy: the more outlandish and unrealistic things are, the better. It’s not about making things look and feel real so we cringe in fear and tense up at suspense. The climax sees one character wielding a lawn stake as his leg-less compatriot swings an iron while tied to his back. Things get wild enough that sense becomes a liability.
Mercy Christmas won’t be for everyone, but it’s difficult to deny its entertainment value. What happens and the way it’s presented as everyday occurrence will at the very least invest your attention to see how it’ll all play out. And no matter how stupid things might get, just know the climactic battle between good and evil is a physical one that proves as hilariously ludicrous as it is punishingly brutal. Everyone is playing his/her role with tongue firmly planted in cheek (except Nielsen, who’s cynical severity renders her the best of the bunch in my opinion) as the scenarios in which they’re embroiled go off the rails. There’s a ton to pick apart (and buzzkills definitely will), but a good time should be had nonetheless.
Mercy Christmas hits VOD on November 28th.