One of the most highly anticipated horror films of 2016 just made its VOD debut, the horror anthology HOLIDAYS. Conceptually, the idea behind the film is brilliant — taking what made films like Trick R Treat and All Hallows Eve so successful, films that used Halloween as the thematic thread to weave multiple stories together, and expanding the idea to include a dark and twisted spin on most major and widely-celebrated holidays.
HOLIDAYS is helmed by a diverse collection of well-respected and rising genre filmmakers, including Kevin Smith (Tusk), Gary Shore (Dracula Untold), Scott Stewart (Dark Skies), Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes), Sarah Adina Smith (The Midnight Swim), Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact), Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate), and Anthony Scott Burns (Darknet). The film is comprised of eight independent holiday-themed segments. While the stories aren’t narratively connected (there’s no wraparound segment here), they each share similar themes of holiday anxiety — subverting popular traditions and folklore.
I’m a huge fan of anthology films and so happy to see renewed enthusiasm for the subgenre with the success of films like V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, and Tales of Halloween, among others. These films often get criticized for being such a mixed bag and, due to the collaboration of so many different writers and directors (each with a very unique style and cinematic approach), for being so uneven and inconsistent in tone. However, I think what these films may lack in consistency, they more than make up for with creativity and overall entertainment value.
Modern anthology films often introduce mainstream horror audiences to innovative and groundbreaking independent writers and directors, while allowing more seasoned and/or popular filmmakers the chance to experiment and take bigger risks. Instead of bearing the entire weight for the success or failure of a film, these directors get the chance to make a meaningful contribution to a team effort. And, even if a particular segment doesn’t resonate with all audiences, the film can succeed on the strength of all its combined parts.
Besides the general holiday theme, the segments contained within HOLIDAYS are all over the place with regards to style and tone. As with most anthology films, your personal enjoyment of each of the individual segments will vary based on your genre preferences. For me, there were definitely segments I felt were more underwhelming than others. But, taken as a whole, it was easy to appreciate the diversity and creativity on display here. This film is also an incredibly fast-paced and highly entertaining collection, with each short clocking in at less than 15 minutes. Thus, even if a story doesn’t quite gel with your personal tastes, you’ll quickly be on to the next.
For those of you who don’t mind a few minor spoilers, we’ll take a closer look at each of the segments included in HOLIDAYS below. If you’d rather go into your viewing completely cold, please skip ahead to the end of the spoilers.
Reviewing the Segments (Minor Spoilers Ahead)
The film kicks off in style with a segment, Valentine’s Day, directed by the visionary team behind the brilliant Starry Eyes, Denis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch. Somewhat reminiscent of Carrie, the story features a troubled and bullied teenage girl who goes to great lengths to seek revenge on her tormentor and impress the object of her affection/obsession. As you might expect from these two, this is a stylistic and visual treat with an interesting female protagonist, even if it is light on plot with a somewhat flat ending.
Up next is Gary Shore’s St. Patrick’s Day, a fascinating and twisted tale of paganism. This is yet another female-driven story centering around the new girl in a Dublin grade-school, a somewhat strange and anti-social redhead, played to perfection by Isolt McCaffrey. With ties to Ireland’s pagan past, the girl develops an unhealthy interest in one of her teachers. In contrast to the first segment, this one has a fairly intricate plot and a very memorable ending sequence.
The third segment, one of my personal favorites, is the delightfully demented Easter by Nicholas McCarthy. Besides being truly creepy and boasting some fairly impressive makeup effects, this short is full of deeper subtext and interesting ideas about children and faith and the odd marriage of fairytale stories and deeply held religious beliefs. Of all the shorts, this is one that was perfectly paced and self-contained but still left viewers hungry for a feature-length adaptation.
The short I was least enamored with was Mother’s Day by Sarah Adina Smith. This story features a young woman (Sophie Traub) who, after being failed by traditional medicine, seeks the help of an alternative fertility clinic in the California desert. Unlike the rest of the women in the group, she’s not there for help getting pregnant. In fact, she gets pregnant far too easily… every time she has sex, regardless of the type of protection used. Although this one isn’t bad by any means, it didn’t seem to pack the same punch as the other segments. And the abrupt, jump scare ending didn’t do much to satiate.
By contrast, the next segment was a definite standout. Father’s Day, directed by Anthony Scott Burns, is about a young woman (the perfect Jocelin Donahue) who discovers a tape-recorded message from her long-deceased father. With a deeply moving narrative and a brilliant buildup of suspense, this short is haunting and gripping right up to the (sadly rushed) ending. Besides Easter, this is the other short that almost demands a feature-length treatment.
The next short is the highest profile one (but ironically the one least tied into the overall theme of the anthology), Halloween from Kevin Smith. Out of all the shorts, this one was the easiest to identify the associated writer/director before the reveal at the end, as it clearly boasts Smith’s signature dark comedic style. I will say that your enjoyment of this one will depend entirely on your affinity for Smith’s filmmaking style. It’s about an abusive pimp who pushes his young cam-girls too the breaking point, resulting in a fun and rather over-the-top tale of sweet revenge. While not overly profound or groundbreaking, this is a fun little romp.
From there, we transition to a much darker comedic tale, Scott Steward’s Christmas, featuring the ever-enjoyable Seth Green in the lead. Green plays a beleaguered husband who will do anything to get his son the hottest gadget on Christmas Eve. He then discovers the fancy toy has a way of revealing one’s true nature. This twisted morality tale with a sinister sense of humor is perhaps the most reminiscent of a Tales From The Crypt episode, complete with the “gotcha” payoff at the end.
The final segment, Adam Egypt Mortimer’s New Year’s Eve (with a script by Kolsch and Widmyer), is a story of online dating gone terribly wrong… where the couple is just a little TOO perfectly matched. In a quick short that will likely be the most appealing to hardcore horror fans and gorehounds, we get some fun performances from Andrew Bowen and Lorenzo Izzo, along with some bloody black comedy. There’s also a nice twist that I won’t spoil here.
Final Thoughts (End of Spoilers)
On the whole, I found the film thoroughly enjoyable and a great showcase for some of the lesser known but extremely talented rising stars of indie horror. While not everything works, there is far more here to love and (at the very least) appreciate than there is to scoff at.
I was also pleasantly surprised and quite impressed by how female-focused most of the segments were. The highly anticipated anthology XX is making headlines for exclusively featuring the work of female filmmakers and stories featuring female protagonists. But this film almost beats it to the punch. Women play a predominant role in all of the shorts, with ¾ of the shorts being almost entirely driven by the strong female performances and storylines.
Because the segments are so short, many of them suffer from underwhelming or rushed endings. But each of them offers a fun ride leading up to that point, and at least a couple of these shorts are true creative standouts that could easily be turned into interesting and highly satisfying feature films.
This is a film that is easy to recommend. While not every segment will have mass appeal, there’s definitely something for everyone here.