Holidays (2016)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-07-19 05:54

Written and Directed by: Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer,Gary Shore, Nicholas McCarthy, Ellen Reid & Sarah Adina Smith, Anthony Scott Burns, Kevin Smith, Scott Stewart, and Adam Egypt Mortimer
Starring: Lorenza Izzo, Seth Green, and Harley Quinn Smith
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

Surviving them is hell.

I am not prone to hyperbole, but it’s not exactly a stretch to say that Holidays features one of the best anthology hooks of all time. The horror genre has so often been intertwined with holidays (seriously, you could make an awesome novelty calendar) that it was only a matter of time until some intrepid folks conspired to craft an omnibus that exploits their warped core. With such an irresistible hook and an assembly of the genre’s most exciting emerging talent (and Kevin Smith), Holidays feels like a can’t-miss concept before the cameras ever roll. For the most part, the final product bears that out—like most anthologies, Holidays is a bit uneven, but its peaks more than make up for its sporadic valleys. Or to make a more appropriate metaphor, its juicier treats make up for its off-brand, dollar bin crap.

Without a frame story, Holidays simply proceeds through the calendar in chronological order, starting with Valentine’s Day and working up to New Year’s Eve. In between, it makes some expected stops while perhaps unexpectedly skipping over obvious dates like Independence Day and Thanksgiving*. Despite a lack of a unifying frame, the film finds some coherence in the generally demented tone, as most of the segments are driven by that fiendishly clever mean streak made famous by Amicus and EC Comics. In a way, it feels like every holiday segment is Halloween to a certain extent.

Setting that tone immediately is Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s “Valentine’s Day,” a sick little Carrie-inspired bit that finds high school student Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) bullied by her classmates in PE. Like the other girls in class, she harbors a crush on the teacher, a high-strung hunk in need of a heart transplant and—well, I’ve probably said too much. It doesn’t take astute viewers long to figure out just where this one is headed, but it’s no less sick and twisted (and I mean that in the most delightful way possible). In a short amount of time, Coghlan and her directors craft a fascinating little character in Maxine, a doe-eyed awkward girl pushed to the brink of savage violence, and she’s so immediately likeable that you can’t help but break out a wry smile at the climax.

Things get weird in a hurry when Gary Shore takes the reins for “St. Patrick’s Day,” a clever vignette that turns the holiday’s familiar lore inside-out. What begins with a dated video recounting St. Patrick’s battle with snakes to an audience of bored schoolchildren quickly escalates to some devilish, pagan shit. In an effort to reach an especially recalcitrant student (Isolt McCaffery), a frustrated, overworked teacher (Ruth Bradley) is drawn into the child’s sinister whims. According to the student, she’ll only smile if the teacher wishes for what she wants the most, which in this case is a child. And let’s just say the old “be careful what you wish for…” maxim applies here is an understatement, as this one takes a skin-crawling body horror turn before trailing off into even more bizarre territory for its denouement. In a film that’s full of gonzo images, it says a lot that this segment arguably boasts the most memorable of the bunch, plus a terrific, devious performance from McCaffery as the little hellraiser.

I’d be lying if I said Nicolas McCarthy’s “Easter” didn’t at least give it a run for its money, though. You might think it’d be difficult to somehow twist this particular holiday into a terrifying proposition, but he does just that with a segment that comes to replicate a jumbled-up childhood nightmare. On the eve of Easter Sunday, a young girl’s anxieties about the Easter Bunny, Jesus’s resurrection, and her own father’s recent death are blended into a feverish, ghastly encounter with a demonic figure. Unlike the first two segments, there’s not much fun to be had here—this is a fucked up, grim-and-gritty take on The Santa Clause, only it features a horrific amalgam of the Easter Bunny and Jesus. Imagine every weird, terrible dream you had as a child—that’s the Easter segment in a nutshell.

Things hit a bit of a snag with Ellen Reid and Sarah Adina Smith’s “Mother’s Day,” one of the few segments here that could be considered a bit undercooked. To its credit, it does feature an intriguing hook involving a young woman who somehow gets pregnant every time she has sex, a disorder that prompts her doctor to suggest an alternative form of treatment involving an odd fertility support group. It’s unconventional, but then again this is an unconventional bunch looking to use the woman’s curse for their own nefarious means. I’m not just using vague terminology to preserve spoilers—it’s really all I can say. This group is up to something that remains mysterious—we catch a brief glimpse of that something just as the segment ends, but it’s not enough to add up to much. There’s leaving a mystery up to the viewer’s imagination, and then there’s leaving them with a vague, unsatisfying ending like this.

Acting as something of a companion piece, “Father’s Day” is similarly vague yet much more intriguing. It follows a girl’s (Jocelin Donahue) strange attempt to reconnect with her long-lost father. After disappearing years earlier, he sends a mysterious taped message that has her retracing the steps of a childhood trip. His voice guides her every step of the way, creating a haunting presence: we’re not sure if she’s hearing the voice of a literal or metaphorical ghost, but the sense of loss hangs thick like a specter all the same. As we watch the girl sift through her childhood recollections, an unconventional mixture of anticipation, dread, hope, and sorrow trail in her wake. Writer/director Anthony Scott Burns’s time spent as a crew member on The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh seems to have rubbed off on him: this is a segment that’s heavy with emotion but also terrifying in its exploration of the inexplicable. Burns’s refusal to connect all of the dots results in a vaguely Lovecraftian sense of menace that’s felt more than it’s seen—like the girl, we can’t fathom what happened to her father because it’s beyond comprehension.

Somehow, a film that hails the arrival of a promising talent like Burns swiftly races to the opposite end of the spectrum to capture Kevin Smith absolutely scraping the bottom of the barrel. The film practically tees up the easiest possible gig for him by having him helm the Halloween segment, and he promptly blows it. With the best holiday at his disposal, he’s only inspired enough to pay lip service with some dime store decorations and a brief acknowledgement that, yes, this episode is technically set on Halloween. Otherwise, it’d be hard to tell since Smith chooses to strand the audience in a camped room with a trio of Los Angeles cam girls (one played by his own daughter) and their misogynist manager.

Finally fed up with his treatment of them, they decide to enact revenge in this puerile bit of nonsense that sees Smith plunge even further into his new role as a faux provocateur. In a garbage attempt at exploiting the now decade-old “torture porn” trend, he cranks the sleaze and violence to levels that even Rob Zombie or Eli Roth might find obnoxious. There’s nothing particularly funny, horrifying, or even interesting here—if anything, it’s feminism scrawled in crayons because it feels less about women empowerment and more about male insecurity. To his credit, Smith’s voice remains distinct (I knew this would be his segment the minute a character strolls in wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “pussy haver”)—it’s just that his voice is one that grates. My teenage self would be confounded to know that Smith would eventually be the worst thing about any project, yet here we are.

Luckily, Holidays recovers for its final two segments. Scott Stewart’s “Christmas” plays like a hellish riff on Jingle All The Way, as weary father Pete Gunderson (Seth Green) is charged with tracking down the season’s hot item, a virtual reality machine fueled by one’s inner thoughts. It becomes something of a prison for him when he manages to acquire it for his son via shady means, as his guilt transforms his fantasies into a nightmare. Stewart gets back to the genuinely wicked spirit of Holidays with this episode, which hinges on a gnarly little twist that resolves the issues surrounding the Gundersons’ passionless marriage. In addition to striking just the right impish tone for this sort of thing, it’s nicely gory and exploits the logical extremes of a consumerist holiday that tends to pit folks against each other. This is what you want from a segment in a movie titled Holidays.

To that end, the closing “New Year’s Eve” segment isn’t quite as accomplished. More than anything, the holiday itself is window dressing to motivate a meeting between Reggie (Andrew Bowen) and Jean (Lorenza Izzo), a couple of frustrated singles looking to spend New Year’s Eve with someone, even if it means resorting to an online dating service. We already know Reggie’s using it to literally prey on women since the segment opens with him torturing and murdering a previous date; with Jessie, however, he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Arguably a victim of bad timing, this segment—and its predictable twist—arrive in the shadow of Knock Knock, so its reveal is hardly surprising. Still, Izzo channels some of that same deranged energy that made her so weirdly endearing in that film, so it’s hard to resist another round of it. The twist also makes this segment a solid companion piece to its Christmas predecessor since both uncover twisted, grisly secrets, thus allowing Holidays to finish strong in the process.

All told, Holidays more or less lives up to its strong premise, especially since it provides a snapshot of so much exciting talent. I look forward to everyone’s future gigs (including Smith’s, if only for possible redemptive purposes), and I also hope to see this concept revisited. Not only are there still more holidays to exploit, but you could conceivably see other creative teams tackle the ones spoken for here. Hell, we’re most certainly owed a decent Halloween segment, so that alone would justify a potential sequel (seriously, Kev—you had one job). For now, though, Holidays is as another solid entry in a recent horror anthology resurgence that I’d like to see continue. More than anything, the producers behind this wave have relied on a rock solid formula of gathering a bunch of talented folks together, and this is the latest evidence that this approach usually wins out.

*I like to think that the Thanksgiving omission is a jab at the fact that Eli Roth’s fabled Grindhouse turkey day slasher is never going to happen.

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