[105 minutes. Unrated. Director: Various.]
Today’s horror anthologies have an enthusiasm in approach, but a laziness in execution. A common notion among fiction-writers is that short stories are more difficult than novels because of the compressed format. The same applies to short films; the fact that expectations are tempered to 10 – 15 minutes requires the beats of character, story, and impact to be achieved not only in a shorter timeframe, but with as few tonal and narrative missteps as possible.
Watching something like The ABCs of Death, with 26 different directors given 26 opportunities for greatness, is an exercise in frustration, with few consecutive segments maintaining the same quality standard, leading to a schizophrenic experience as frustrating as watching an uneven narrative film.
Holidays follows the same format as ABCs: a collection of tales highlighting various celebratory times of year (or, at the very least, excuses for Hallmark to bleed a few bucks from the American consumer). With no wraparound story, it lives and dies on the strength of its individual parts, which are not created equal.
Outside of blatantly paying homage to some iconic images, I was hard-pressed to derive any sort of point from the Excision– and Carrie-lite “Give Me Your Heart” (directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the duo behind for Starry Eyes). With exposition-laden dialog and a lack of continuity (Creepy Girl doesn’t want to jump into pool; has daydream about gym coach; all of a sudden, Pretty Girl is shoving her off the diving board…huh?!), this recalls the aforementioned teen-angst films, only the payoff is flat and predictable.
Elsewhere, the goofy Ben Wheatley wannabe “St. Patrick’s Day” (written and directed by Gary Shore) blends comedy, irony, pregnancy, and cults so badly it’s like the Wicker Man remake without the laughs. It tosses out flip nods to Rosemary’s Baby and even The Beyond (impish little red-haired girl) but has no idea how to synthesize them into something beyond a lame visual punchline of cultists carrying a ginormous snake around the countryside.
I will give “Easter” credit for distilling the holiday lore into an odd hybrid: writer-director Nicholas McCarthy seems properly baffled at how an anthropomorphic rabbit and Jesus correlate. Despite clunky opening dialogue between a mother and her inquisitive daughter, which muddies the seas of confusion, and an ending that’s disappointingly anticlimactic, the midsection delivers some intriguing, Clive Barker-esque imagery and some existential food for thought.
Holidays gains momentum once it delves into the days that recognize parents and their influence, with “Mother’s Day” (written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith) an appropriately female-centric take on one young woman’s desperate attempt to cease her overt fertility (“I get pregnant every time I have sex”), though her decision to seek help via a New Age cult proves questionable. Smith creates an uneasy atmosphere, and a sense of isolation pervades, even if the ending is a disappointing bundle of “what the fuck.” Anthony Scott Brown’s “Father’s Day” is the highlight of the film, generating drama and suspense through a simple premise: a woman (House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue), transitioning to a new locale, finds a tape player and cassette in a box of paternal mementoes; the contents of the recording – a message from her estranged father (voiced by Michael Gross) – leads her on an unpredictable (and unexpectedly moving) pathway to reunion. Working better as a drama told in pale shades of gray and green, the segment is anchored by Donahue’s performance, which exudes skepticism and vulnerability; while the final reveal may be something of a letdown, the minimalist power of this tale (including clever attention to how a grownup’s words can take on a different meaning when a child listens to them many years later) makes it especially insightful and mature amid Holidays’ more underwhelming offerings.
At this juncture, what can be said of Kevin Smith? The most well-known directorial inclusion in Holidays may have shifted genre gears when he swapped endearingly vulgar rom-coms for the provocative protest of Red State and the creature-feature horror of Tusk. His segment, “Halloween,” would seem a continuation of these thematic sensibilities, and it crackles with his nattering, hypercaffeinated dialog. It’s a low-rent affair, wherein a trio of Internet cam-girls turn the tables on their abusive boss. While a supernatural element is floated, “Halloween” is essentially Smith’s entry into the torture-porn ring, replete with dark humor and an over-the-top feminist slant (though one might argue that the women come across just as unfavorably as the men here). As with Tusk, the filmmaker dashes the potential impact of his premise with a frustrating, cheap-joke ending.
Of all the segments, Scott Stewart’s “Christmas” comes closest to the darkly jovial tone that informed the more lighthearted episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (unfortunately, it isn’t polished enough to approach their quality). After a faux promotion for a Strange Days-styled headset (“your imagination come to life!” the ad proclaims), it settles into the story of an emasculated father (Seth Green) who gets the high-tech toy for his kid…under unscrupulous circumstances. Its clichés are legion (the unsympathetic bitch of a wife; on-the-nose S&M fantasies), and the conclusion is an unfortunate muddle. Green, however, uses all of his comedic strength to make it at least watchable.
In a weird sort of ellipsis, “New Year’s” returns to the predictability of “Give Me Your Heart,” with a serial killer (Andrew Bowen) desperately trying to connect with someone via online dating. He seems to have found his match in Jean (Lorenza Izzo), but she has other ideas. While this segment (directed by Some Kind of Hate’s Adam Egypt Mortimer, and written by the Starry Eyes guys) breaks no new ground in terms of premise, the attention to character detail is good, and the use of the ten-second countdown to frame the climax is moderately exciting.
Overall, though, Holidays does little to raise the profile of the millennial horror anthology. With few exceptions (especially “Father’s Day”), it is only slightly better overall than the subgenre’s most underwhelming offerings (The ABCs of Death 2; V/H/S). Maybe the biggest flaw is the premise itself: while using holidays as backdrops for tales of terror could open this film up to franchise potential, most of these already have pretty definitive feature-length counterparts – My Bloody Valentine (1981; 2009); Mother’s Day (1980; 2010); Astron-6’s Father’s Day (2011); New Year’s Evil (1980); and any number of Christmas-set horrors.
“Give Me Your Heart”: 1.5 out of 5 stars
“St. Patrick’s Day”: 1 out of 5 stars
“Happy Easter”: 2.5 out of 5 stars
“Mother’s Day”: 2.5 out of 5 stars
“Father’s Day”: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“Halloween”: 2.5 out of 5 stars
“Christmas”: 2 out of 5 stars
“New Year’s”: 2.5 out of 5 stars
2 out of 5 stars
Crash Analysis Support Team:
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is a cheap bastard, which is why he gives the gift of movie reviews instead of physical items. Ho, ho, ho! His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com. He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.
(Holidays photo from Horror Freak News.)