The Film: Xmas Tale (aka, Cuento de navidad, aka Films to Keep You Awake: The Christmas Tale)
The Principals: Maru Valdivielso, Ivana Baquero. Directed by Paco Plaza.
The Premise: In 1985, in a coastal Spanish town, a group of kids discover an unconscious woman (Maru Valdivielso) dressed as Santa Claus lying at the bottom of a deep pit. When the children realize that the woman is a wanted criminal on the run after a robbery, they decide to keep her prisoner in the pit until she will tell them where she hid the money. But the woman begins causing tension within the group, playing off the sympathies of the group’s lone and frequently disrespected girl, Moni (Ivana Baquero). Eventually an ax gets involved.
Is It Good: Yes. This is a really wonderful and twisted little film. Similar to Super 8, it is also clearly a nostalgia piece for director Paco Plaza (one half of the [REC] franchise), considering there is no narrative reason that the film should take place in 1985, other than an excuse to make Karate Kid references. But while the time period doesn’t add anything, it certainly doesn’t detract anything either. Plus, it is interesting to see how similar life was for a geeky kid in Spain as it was in America.
At first the film has the spot-on tone of a classic Amblin kids flick, with some spunky boys getting mixed up with something big and strange, but it goes to much darker places than even Joe Dante would have. There is a dangerous edge to the characters. It is a testament not just to how much fun young boys are, but how awful they can be too. And we’re not talking about “do the Truffle Shuffle” awfulness. Xmas Tale‘s kids start to slip into the darkside as two of the boys increasingly view Rebecca, the woman in the hole, as an expendable commodity, cruelly eating the food that Moni brings her while passive aggressively bullying Moni for her empathy. The abuse that befalls Rebecca is not of the Home Alone variety — lasting and gross damage happens. But this isn’t a friends turning on each other tale, like Shallow Grave. The film is more of an allegory about kids misbehaving, with Rebecca serving ultimately as ax-wielding karma. I like how Plaza balances making the boys seem terrible for mistreating Rebecca, while never actually reversing the tables and making you root for her. You root for Moni, played by young Ivana Baquero with the same soft grace and sadness she brought to Pan’s Labyrinth. I also like that as dark as things get, this also isn’t Mean Creek. You eventually root for the mean boys too. Cause, after all, they’re just boys. This is just Plaza’s Amblin. The film never stops being fun or funny. Act III is a lengthy slasher movie chase sequence at a frozen water park! Plaza is out for good times.
Xmas Tale is a small and fairly simple film. The vast majority of scenes take place around the pit, so everything is carried by the performances of the kids (while it never goes full Muppet Babies, aside from Rebecca, adults play an obscured role in the film). Maru Valdivielso gives a nice nasty performance as Rebecca too, looking increasingly disgusting as the film progresses. Another strange element of the film is the comically terrible and poorly dubbed film-within-the-film, Zombie Invasion, which the mean boys are quite fond of — and take twisted inspiration from.
Is It Worth A Look: Most definitely. For Amblin-style junkies, as well as those who just want to see someone dressed as Santa get abused. They don’t make enough films like this.
Random Anecdote: The film is actually an installment of the Spanish horror TV anthology series Films To Keep You Awake, which is basically a Masters of Horror for Spain. Plaza’s directing partner for [REC], Jaume Balaguero, also contributed a film to the series called The Let.