In many ways, the new anthology horror movie that just opened in select theaters on July 22, and is currently streaming nationwide on VOD, comes perfectly named. “Holidays” reminds you of the guest list for any family gathering – you’re happy to see most who show up, others not quite as much, and then there is always a crazy cousin or two that you wish weren’t related. Thus, this frightener, written and directed by some of the buzziest names in the genre, is a somewhat mixed bag. Still, if one ignores the bad ‘relatives’, audiences will have a very good time here because this exudes exceptional horror.
Most anthologies movies are wildly uneven and “Holidays” is no exception. Luckily, all of the entries here are at least very well-produced. The production values, cinematography, production design, score, and acting in all of them are terrific, even while a few of the scripts are not. Still, five of the eight holidays exploited here for frights are worth seeing. And if you watch them on VOD, including on Amazon video, you can fast forward through the ones that don’t give you cause to celebrate.
The anthology starts out most promisingly with “Valentine’s Day.” Written & directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer, responsible for 2014’s sharp indie horror film “Starry Eyes”, this entry delivers a revenge tale that’s taut, tense and wicked. In it, a quiet, young girl named Maxine is taunted by her snotty female classmates during swim practice. Maxine’s crush on her swimming coach only acerbates things further until she decides to exact her revenge in ways that are quite fitting to the holiday at hand. Every shot in this one is beautifully composed, and the editing doesn’t waste a second. Kolsch and Widmyer are the real deal. Let’s hope they continue to get more and more opportunities to place audiences on the edge of their seats.
“St. Patrick’s Day”, written and directed by Gary Shore, is next and it concerns an Irish teacher whose biological clock is ticking away and may be driving her crazy too. A strange student seems to want to help her, but she may be a demon child too, depending on teach’s state of mind that moment. In this frothy head game, Shore stirs in the story of St. Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland in the 5th century. You know if snakes are in a horror movie, they’re going to come with penis metaphors, and this one overplays the trope to the point of hilarity. Maybe it’s supposed to be that arch, but it keeps the audience from ever really understanding or caring about the teacher. Shore loves to shoot quasi-fantasy sequences too, and he borrows liberally from the likes of “The Omen”, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Wicker Man.” It’s all rather unsettling, but it’s too abstract to be truly affecting.
Another short that indeed, comes up short is “Father’s Day.” Up until the last moments, it’s an involving story about a young woman whose father left her when she was a child. He’s now returned and has sent her an old-fashioned tape recorder with a tape instructing her how to find him. Venturing out into the dark night in an abandoned part of town never leads to much good in these sorts of stories, but that is what Carol does. As portrayed by Jocelin Donahue in the film’s best performance, we go along with her though because we empathize with her curiosity. But when she gets to the moment where her dad is revealed, writer/director Anthony Scott Burns rushes the moment, doesn’t really explain what happened to him, and then it just ends. You had us at hello, but lost us at goodbye.
“Mother’s Day” is probably the least successful of the lot, as it tells another tale about a forlorn woman and her issues with pregnancy. The main character is a woman named Mandy who ends up preggers every time she has sex. 20 abortions later, she’s in therapy so her sympathetic shrink sends her to a retreat with other women. There, Mandy finds no solace. Instead, she finds something cultish that harbors back to classics like “The Wicker Man” again. It’s all a bit disjointed and derivative, but the one big surprise is what Mandy ends up birthing and it’s not particularly scary, mostly just a hoary play on her name.
“Easter” is short and sweet and very dark. A little girl named Kate wants to know what the Easter Bunny looks like so she stays up late one holiday to sneak a peek. The visage she witnesses is horrifying as instead of finding a big, cuddly rabbit, she gazes upon a man-beast that looks like Jeff Goldblum went through his machine in “The Fly” with Bugs Bunny instead. And in case, devout Christians weren’t already going to be offended by blending the horror genre with Christ’s resurrection, the bunny man comes with all of the crucified Savior’s wounds too. Filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy is nothing if not brazen and bold here, and this entry is not for the Ted Cruz evangelical crowd.
Writer/director Kevin Smith is the marquee name here and he handles the obvious holiday of “Halloween”, but don’t be expecting a riff on Michael Myers any other traditional spook, ghost or goblin. Instead, Smith presents a nasty parody on the cam girl trade, as a gauche pornographer is treated to some of the same abuse he’s heaped on his sex workers. His three girls turn the tables and camera on him in the funniest and most over-the-top of the shorts. I wasn’t a big fan of his darkly comic “Tusk” last year, but Smith’s bite-sized chiller here is a fun and fierce entry in this collection.
The last two in the bunch are superb. Both “Christmas” and “New Year’s Eve” are stinging, short dark comedies that pack a wallop while showcasing the horrors of not only their holidays, but the couples at the center of each. In “Christmas”, written and directed by Scott Stewart, Seth Green plays a father desperate to get his hands on the season’s hot new gizmo – a virtual reality headset called UVU. The apparatus lets the viewer to see what’s in their mind, be it a fantasy to memory. You view you, get it? When dad tries it on, he’s horrified to see that it replays the insidious way he went about getting his prize. Even worse, after his wife (Clare Grant) wears it, he’s able to see her true colors in a way that will mar Christmas day, and every other one he spends with her on earth. This one has a vaguely “Twilight Zone” feel to it, and that’s meant as the highest of compliments.
“New Year’s Eve” is about hellish truths revealed in couplings as well. The movie ends on a high note with this one, also written by Kolsch and Widmyer, but directed by Clare Grant, who does wonders with her actors. (She is superb in the “Christmas” segment too, and is married to Seth Green in real life as well. That’s one talented duo.) A single man named Reggie desperately wants to meet the girl of his dreams, and will kill those that don’t meet his expectation. But when he finds a woman who’s a 96% match on a dating site, he thinks he’s found his dream girl. But of course, it wouldn’t be a horror movie if that dream didn’t become a nightmare. This one also scores points, like Smith’s “Halloween” for its refusal to treat all of its female cast members as victims. The genre usually does, but not here.
The producers at XYZ Films should be proud of the quality of this production, and here’s hoping that they continue to make clever frighteners that parody the holidays. Bloodletting, death and monsters will likely always be part of such things, but how refreshing that the main monsters here are mortal men and women. Recognizable evil is always the most terrifying. And as long as there are holidays to lampoon – Memorial Day, anyone? – these filmmaker folks should be able to make additional must-see horror every calendar year for some time.