“Holiday Hell” is a four-part anthology film that delivers the occasional treat but generally fails to capture that sought-after holiday spirit.
Holiday Hell gives us well-known horror actor Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, The Frighteners, House on Haunted Hill) as the shopkeeper of the strange oddities shop, Nevertold Casket Co. He comes across as equal parts The Creep (Creepshow) and Leland Gaunt (Needful Things), while sadly lacking the charm and evil charisma of both.
The core of this movie takes place within the shop. And although the shop is scattered with ghoulish and ghastly knickknacks, it comes across as bare and lacking the mystique reflected in the items for sale. Other than the items themselves, there is nothing in the shop. Items are simply hung up or placed, with no care given to making the shop itself feel like a real or interesting establishment.
Uniformly colored walls and a lack of decor take away from the illusion of this eclectic storefront. The budget for this film becomes apparent from the opening scene, as does the lack of flair in the set. The emptiness of the shop is distracting and is a reminder that this is nothing more than a movie set. Thankfully for the viewer and the sake of the movie, the bulk of this film is told in the form of stories.
There are four separate stories and one overarching one in between segments.
Each of the four stories coincides with a holiday and are directly related to an item within Nevertold Casket Co. Some stories are better than others, as is the issue that faces many anthology movies such as VHS, Creepshow, and The ABC’s of Death.
The range of success for stories within anthologies can be attributed to the differences in writing, the directors, or even the acting styles. These differences also mean that each story can be looked at separately while being compared to the whole.
PART ONE: DOLLFACE
The first segment takes place on Valentine’s Day. A group of teens decide to party in an abandoned house that just so happened to be the site of a grisly crime. Things quickly go south as one by one they are picked off by Dollface. This is the weakest of the four, in my opinion, which is not how you want to start your anthology. Some flashes of decent practical FX work are not enough to make up for the weak dialogue in this one. And while poorly written dialogue is a weakness for the entire film, the problem seems to be at its worst during this segment.
Slow pacing and even more disheartened interactions go on to further damage what could have been a much better short. The film’s budget can likely be to blame for many of these shortcomings, but certainly it can’t all be to blame as the other three segments are much stronger. Despite Dollface being based around Valentine’s Day, very little emotion is shown from each actor’s performance.
PART TWO: THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE DREIDEL
If clever names alone counted, this segment would get a perfect score from me. From setting to camera work, this short is much stronger than the first. By combining a creepy doll with the viewpoint and fears of a child, this installment finally gets the movie’s motor running. This ‘babysitter gone bad’ story does nothing new for the trope, but it does hit all the points needed to use it successfully.
Where this short truly shines is with the puppet itself, which has a very Puppet Master feeling to it. There is serious skill and dedication surrounding that puppet’s creation, which somehow seems to strengthen every other aspect as well. This short could have done very well as its own separate entity. But its entertainment factor is brought down when coupled with the rest of the film.
PART THREE: CHRISTMAS CARNAGE
For me, this was the strongest story out of all of them, and it’s pretty obvious during which holiday it takes place.
The story centers around a disgruntled man, played by Joel Murray (Mad Men, Shameless, Still Standing). He’s in an unhappy marriage, and his dead-end job has him tasked with playing Santa for his company Christmas party. The small cast and camera cuts succeed in creating what feels like a realistic party. It seems our crazed Santa thought everyone was naughty this year, although I’m sure doing blow off a pair of breasts counts no matter how sober someone might be.
There is a fantastic drinking montage that captures the perfect blend of humor and alarm, highlighting the strengths of Christmas Carnage. Also, there is plenty of fun gore, so my only real complaint with this one is how the massacre seems to be over as soon as it starts.
PART FOUR: ROOM TO LET
Sadly, the final segment almost manages to snuff out all momentum and fun the previous two generated.
This short is about a shy girl, played by McKenna Ralston (Z Nation), who is renting a room only to be used as a sacrifice by the owner’s coven. But it never hits the mark. And it isn’t until the word Christmas is dropped that the viewer has an inkling of the holiday being celebrated (Winter Solstice). The homages to Suspiria in this one are nice, but seem just out of reach.
What should be a friendly nod to a great movie comes across as a little forced. All the ingredients were there for this short to be great, but the lack of heart by the lead brought this one down. What needed to be the strongest story due to its connection to the finale ended up being the least original.
While the film doesn’t end with the fourth short, the final ending feels as forced as anything else shot in the shop.
It might surprise the viewer to see that the intermediary shop story and The Hand that Rocks the Dreidel come from the same director. Two solid stories are enough to make this film enjoyable, but it’s not likely to be anyone’s favorite horror anthology. A sloppy start and a poorly executed ending hinder what could have been a very watchable indie holiday flick.
Seeing Jeffrey Combs play a shopkeeper is a reward all on its own, however, even if the script for him isn’t the best. Simply hearing his voice is enough to make me, and many other horror fans, happy.
There is some talent here overall, but having to cherry-pick it from each story shouldn’t be the viewer’s job.