Friday, October 7, 2016


Holidays (2016)
Dir. and written by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer, Gary Shore, Matt Johnson, Kevin Smith, Scott Stewart, Nicholas McCarthy,, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Sarah Adina Smith, Anthony Scott Burns
Starring a whole bunch of people, it’s one of those anthologies. But It's worth noting that Seth Green is in there!

So here’s the thing, I have a mental disorder, and that disorder is that I am pretty much powerless to resist the charms of any horror-related anthology film, no matter how shitty. And being able to enjoy the shitty ones is a pretty useful adaptive strategy, because boy howdee, are they shitty. There have been, what, maybe five good ones, ever? I count DEAD OF NIGHT, TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), CREEPSHOW, TRICK R’ TREAT… uh… I really liked FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM, even though it seems like no one else does. I dunno, maybe like half or less of the various segments in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE or TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE or JOHN CARPENTER’S BODYBAGS? And one from SPIRITS OF THE DEAD? You know a subgenre is in trouble when there’s a very real possibility SNOOP DOGG’S HOOD OF HORROR is in the top ten.

So anthology films have always been shitty, and I should know, I’ve watched and enjoyed a positively gluttonous sampling of them. It’s weird, though because they should be so easy to get right! The anthology format means there’s no need for fatty subplots or laborious complications, there’s just time for a simple, elegant setup to explain who’s involved and what the stakes are, and then the good part. It should be the perfect format to cut to the chase -- get in, deliver the goods, get out. In the horror genre in particular, where so much of the point is to deliver the genre goods, this seems, in theory anyway, like a surefire strategy for greatness. After all, a good anthology segment is basically a short story, an opportunity to focus completely on one specific conflict which says something more far-reaching about the people involved, but doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of ancillary baggage. In short fiction, this can sometimes be a quick sketch of a character, or perhaps even a poetic invocation of a particular time and place --and I suppose it could be in film as well-- but film, much more than literature, tends to be a primarily narrative medium, and so the easiest path to a successful horror segment is usually the structure of an ironic comeuppance. Here’s a guy, he’s a real asshole and control freak who’s obsessed with cleanliness, and what happens, suddenly his apartment is swarming with killer cockroaches, and they eventually come out of his body, because of course he’s the ultimate source for all the pollution in his life. Bam, perfect horror anthology segment (and indeed, it’s the last segment of CREEPSHOW).

Somehow, though, that simple fact does not seem obvious to most anthology filmmakers. I’ve seen anthology after anthology flub a sure thing by failing to grasp the fundamental mechanics of short fiction. It’s most noticeable in a lot of modern anthologies like the VHS’s and ABC’s OF DEATHS, which --particularly when paired with the medium-ruining found footage aesthetic-- tend to focus on incidents rather than a complete narrative, resulting in a much less satisfying experience. Rather than introduce us to characters with a tragic flaw which results in an appropriate punishment, they just show (to the extent that found footage shows us anything) a bunch of mumbly non-characters who get involved in some kind of event for no reason and all get killed. Though this is not exclusively the province of modern anthology films (see the baffling GRIM PRAIRIE TALES or the Herbert-Lom-is-a-tiny-robot finale of ASYLUM) it definitely feels like it’s becoming much more common to have these segments essentially sidestep narrative completely and just dump an isolated horror sequence on you without any meaningful context.

Which brings us to HOLIDAYS, surely one of the most imaginatively bankrupt concepts for an anthology horror film ever devised. There are eight segments here by different directors, all centering around one of the exactly eight holidays which exist in the calendar year, those being Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. Too bad, I was really holding out for a Rosh Hashanah or a Canadian Independence Day or something. But maybe they’re saving those for the sequels. You’ll know they’ve done too many of these when you see International Safer Internet Awareness Day (Feb 8) and National Pig Day (March 1). For our purposes here, though, they don’t get weird about the holidays, they get weird on the concepts. Because give HOLIDAYS credit: what it lacks in concept, it tends to mostly make up for in weirdness, and that’s a plus in my book. Plus, check it out -- the holidays are in chronological order! That means they can’t bolster their two good segments as bookends and then cram a bunch of filler in the middle. Anything can happen!

We begin with directors Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer’s take on a bedrock-standard CARRIE scenario; a shy, bullied girl with a secret crush on her teacher finds a way to turn her revenge into a potential icebreaker with the Prof. I haven’t seen Kölsch & Widmyer’s previous STARRY EYES, but I’ve heard enough good things about it that, had I known who they were, I wouldn’t have been so surprised that this opening segment is unexpectedly solid. The gritty, grimy detail of the digital video married with the slightly exaggerated surrealism of the photography adds up to a pleasingly nightmarish intensity, especially in a splendid stalking sequence which put a huge, sadistic smile on my face. The story itself is as boilerplate as these things come, but the execution is remarkably deft, finding meat on this very thoroughly chewed old bone simply by nailing the fundamentals. The segment doesn’t reinvent cinema or anything, but it doesn’t really need to when it does exactly what I was just describing: it understand the format and makes the most of it to convey a simple, satisfying and well-crafted narrative arc.

Next up we have a take on St. Patrick’s Day from Gary Shore, recent director of the immediately forgotten and thoroughly unlamented DRACULA UNTOLD, a movie so empty and needless it retroactively made other Dracula movies worse. In fact, I have good reason to believe that prior to the existence of DRACULA UNTOLD, Keanu Reeves delivered a nuanced, brooding performance in a flawless British accent in Coppola's DRACULA, but the existence of UNTOLD retroactively altered history to fuck it up, and now that’s how we all remember it. UNTOLD was as blatant a piece of corporate hackwork as I’ve ever managed to actually watch all the way through, a dispirited and unwieldy Frankenstein’s monster lurching in pain and confusion at its own tortured existence, and yet still somehow so barren and dire and uninspired and gutless that it didn’t even have the decency to be fleetingly interesting as an ill-conceived trainwreck. So you’ll be surprised to hear that Shore’s short here is… well, I wouldn’t call it good exactly, but at least it’s weird. It feels like the work of an actual human with some kind of artistic ambition, instead of a committee of lawyers. It concerns an Irish schoolteacher (Ruth Bradley, GRABBERS) who becomes entangled with an openly diabolical evil kid, who curses her with some sort of Paganistic pregnancy that involves a spiraled pattern, making this basically a pleasingly batty cross of ROSEMARY’S BABY and UZUMAKI. Some wild editing and abrupt left turns add to the fun, and even though the whole thing doesn’t quite come together, at least it has enough dignity to be a St. Patrick’s Day short with no leprechauns.

Following that is Easter, from THE PACT and AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR director Nicholas McCarthy, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite modern horror directors. THE PACT showcased his patience and gift for icy dread and DEVIL’S DOOR showcased a slyly black sense of humor, but his EASTER segment highlights something present in both of those but perhaps not as immediately obvious: his penchant for truly unexpected ideas. Easter starts off a bit on the dry side, with a young child (Ava Acres, AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR) chatting with her grandma about the odd dissonance between Easter’s origins as a religious holiday and its current incarnation as a sugarfest with marshmallow chicks and colorful eggs. Well, let’s just say that McCarthy makes it his goal to unite the two in a terrifically grotesque way which is both delightful and terrifying. While I don’t know that it exactly works as a narrative the way I usually want these things to, it’s just horror catnip on a conceptual level and as such, is probably my favorite segment here.

(I'm deliberately not showing you the money shot for this segment, but you'll love it)

Next up we have a tribute to Mother’s Day by Sarah Adina Smith (two mystery films I haven’t seen called MIDNIGHT SWIM and BUSTER’S MAL HEART), about, predictably enough, a woman who cannot stop getting pregnant despite the many precautions she takes. This unusual talent draws her into the clutches of a coven of witches, who want to use her to conceive a very, very bad baby. While it’s nice to have a lady in here to break up the typically mostly-male lineup, this ends up being one of the less memorable segments, mostly going exactly where you think and not offering much in the way of tension or whammy. But maybe the things it’s mining for scares --namely, lack of reproductive control-- would be more foundationally frightening to the ladies than it would be to the men-folk like me, so your mileage may vary. Ladies, did you react to this segment more strongly than I did?

We follow Mother’s Day with Father’s Day, of course, in my second favorite segment from director Anthony Scott Burns (former visual effects guy and director of just two shorts and an episode of Dark Net, making a strong case for himself here as a feature director with potential). It follows a young woman (Jocelin Donahue, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) who receives an audio tape from her father (voice of Michael Gross, TREMORS, COOL AS ICE), who mysteriously disappeared years ago. The tape gives instructions on how she can join him, leading to a surreal walk through some wildly bizarre landmarks and into a Lovecraftian puzzle. While there’s not a lot of whammy here --it’s pretty much just a long, narrated stroll down the block--, there’s a startling confidence to the way Burns ties past and present together with a thin line of creepy strangeness, and a seductive, propulsive build to the cinematography and editing. It’s frankly a rather marvelous little bit of filmmaking, and I very much look forward to seeing what else Burns is capable of in the future.

Which unfortunately brings us to Halloween, and the big marquee director on the ticket here, one Kevin Smith. I’ve been a Kevin Smith fan as long as I’ve been a serious cinephile, but after seeing YOGA HOSERS last month (which may well be the first movie I’ve ever put more effort into seeing than the filmmakers did making it) I can’t help but feel that he’s barely even trying anymore. RED STATE and TUSK seemed like a real effort for him to do something new and different, and it turned out to be at least extremely interesting, if not entirely successful. After those two, I was really looking forward to seeing where his second career as a horror director would take him. But after a whole movie in which the only joke is the title (a joke which the film seems to think gets funnier each time it’s repeated using an accent of any kind), he’s now officially on my list of once-daring directors for whom each new film provokes fear of how far they’ll sink rather than excitement for new greatness. You know, The Argento List. His Halloween segment does very little to change that. It’s a simple revenge story; this asshole (Harley Morenstein, internet star of the entertaining Epic Meal Time youtube extreme cooking show) who runs a cam girl house and treats his girls badly finds himself the victim of some ironic revenge, and I guess it takes place on Halloween, not that it really matters. The cast is good; Morenstein does decent work here as an actor to the extent that Smith gives him any room to do so, and the girls are effective enough in their limited role. Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith (really!) from YOGA HOSERS continues to prove she might actually be an entertaining actor if her dad ever gave her anything entertaining to do, and Ashley Greene (TWILIGHT) again proves, as she did in BURYING THE EX, capable of making even the direst comedy more lively and watchable than it has any right to be. [Nevermind, it's a different Ashley Greene, which explains why I didn't recognize her right off. But this Ashley Greene is good too, at least as far as she has anything to do here]

Unfortunately the problem here is Smith. While RED STATE and TUSK adopted a gritty, gothic aesthetic which was genuinely new territory for him, this is noticeably more amateurish, flatter, and more haphazardly filmed than anything else in the movie, which is frankly ridiculous from a director who has 13 theatrically-released feature films and 20 years of experience under his belt. Even worse, without any jokes, Smith’s typically stilted, wordy dialogue stands out as particularly egregious, and his current obsession with utterly failing to imitate the patois of the social-media happy millennials is just painful to endure. Most dispiriting of all, the segment even flubs the simple revenge structure; while Morenstein is definitely a first-rate asshole, Smith fails to cinematically communicate why the particular punishment he’s chosen for him is appropriate or ironic. It would be easy to do; all he’d need is to show us a little of the cam girls’ on-the-job misery, and then draw a parallel to what eventually happens to their dickhole boss. But he doesn’t do that; he just shows them sitting around getting yelled at. Frankly, there’s no excuse for something this simple to be such a wash. Kevin, buddy, I love you, but you gotta get your shit together and start working a little harder if MOOSEJAWS is going to be as great as we all know it should be.

But enough about that, let’s move on to Christmas and director Scott Stewart (the crazy-looking LEGION and PRIEST). His segment finds a put-upon husband (Seth Green, always good to see you), pressed by his hateful wife (Clare Grant, various episodes of Robot Chicken and Mick Garris’s Masters of Horror episode VALERIE ON THE STAIRS), going way too far to get his son a virtual reality set as a Christmas gift. No, it’s not a horror remake of JINGLE ALL THE WAY; instead it’s a frantic and energetic study in guilt via virtual reality, sort of MATCH POINT meets Black Mirror, but in an overcooked horror universe. Green is pretty great as the conscience-ridden, lonely husband, but this a rare anthology segment which feels like it needed a little longer runtime to escalate properly, especially when it throws an unexpected twist ending into the mix. It’s mostly well-made as far as it goes (and it looks nice) but the end result feels a little disjointed and slight.

The final segment (New Year’s Eve) finds Adam Egypt Mortimer (SOME KIND OF HATE) directing from a script by Kölsch & Widmyer, and concerns a sleazy, misogynistic serial killer (Andrew Bowman, MadTV cast member 1998-1999) who ends up on a blind date with a bored young woman who’s willing to settle for Mr. Right Now (Lorenza Izzo, GREEN INFERNO and person who’s believable as a beautiful woman with questionable taste in men, because she’s married to Eli Roth) who may be a little more than he bargained for. Like Kölsch & Widmyer’s first segment, this one again operates on a simple ironic reversal, but again, executes it with fundamentals solid enough to pull it off, though not a whole lot more hustle beyond that. Mortimer’s direction is a little more cartoonish and arch than Kölsch & Widmyer’s, but it suits the somewhat ridiculous, mordantly funny premise nicely and makes for a satisfying, if not especially remarkable, ending.

Which is more or less a good description of the film as a whole. Surprisingly satisfying, if generally unremarkable. Considering the lackluster gimmick of Holiday-themed horror shorts, the up-and-coming directors here turn out generally solid work --particularly Kölsch & Widmyer, McCarthy, and Burns-- which in this subgenre constitutes something close to a miracle. Even the segments that mostly fizzle (the two Smiths) aren’t disasters, and there’s enough fun here and enough tonal diversity to make an hour and 45 minutes a pretty easy sit. Obviously, I’m more forgiving of these anthology debacles than most normal humans are (the other people who sat through this one with me were less enamoured than I), and I suppose I have to acknowledge that “solid fundamentals” may not be enough for most people in the absence of much big-impact whammy (in fact, most of the horror here is pretty conceptual, so don’t expect a lot of gleeful splatter). But at least as far as I’m concerned, this is an unusually successful potpourri of some of the best modern indie horror has to offer, and the proof of that is the directors’’ ability to rise above the film’s dumb premise and deliver interesting and diverse shorts which showcase their unique visions but also deliver the horror goods. Plus the creepiest bunny suit this side of DONNIE DARKO. I suppose it’s not required viewing for anyone but horror anthology enthusiasts, but if you share my particular affliction, this is definitely one of the good ones.

Good Kill Hunting

Every One Has A Dark Side
The film does center on Holidays, yes
Horror Anthology!
Uhhh... Seth Green?
I’m gonna call Jocelin Donahue a beloved horror icon purely on the strength of HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. You gonna fight me on that? Didn’t think so.
Yes, though it’s in the one segment directed by a woman so at least you can’t accuse it of being exploitative.
That’s one nasty bunny. Plus, I think there’s some stuff with a snake in the St. Patrick’s Day one.
Actually, no ghosts in here. Huh.
No possession either. Weird.
Yes, witch cult in the Mother’s Day one, Pagan cult in St. Patrick’s day.
Yeah, I’d say the Valentine’s Day segment is about someone reaching their breaking point.
Yup, in the Easter segment.
I think the web-cam segment qualifies
Just because there are absolutely no more good framing devices for anthology horror films left doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop making them.

More of a B- / C+ than a solid B, but it gets by. 

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