by Ken Bakely
An anthology is like an album. Each part may be different, but its order, presentation, and the way each element interacts in the mind is key to its success. A handful of short films slapped together is not as satisfying as a carefully concocted round of stories, inasmuch as a Beatles compilation album isn’t remotely as satisfying as listening through Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from beginning to end.
We’ve seen the anthology format done well, especially in recent years. On the big screen, Wild Tales is a captivating montage of stories about revenge. On the small screen, Black Mirror has proven itself a terrifyingly astute document, each episode telling a story of technology gone bad, from the realistic (incriminating webcam footage being used as blackmail) to the outlandish (episodes set several decades in the future), grippingly portraying those fears which are real now, and those which will come about soon enough.
Holidays, on the other hand, is a just-alright anthology. Most of its weaknesses come from a lack of sturdiness and consistency within its own prospects. The eight-part film sees a handful of horror directors crafting a story set around a particular holiday, rounding through the calendar from Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve. As I have done before, with previous anthology films, I will write a quick review of ceach individual short, and return at the end with some final comments.
“Valentine’s Day” – Two stars out of four
This short by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer starts things off. It tells the story of Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan), an unpopular teenage girl who has a crush on her school’s swim coach (Rick Peters). On the days before the titular holiday, she takes advantage of an upcoming medical fundraiser on her coach’s behalf (he needs the money for a heart transplant), and decides to indirectly help him out while extracting revenge at her tormenting peers. The twist in the film is somewhat amusing, particularly in respect to the lengths at which Kölsch and Widmyer can stretch things, but the segment overall fails to offer anything beyond some vaguely predictable story beats and an uninspired visual motif, colored and lit in bland and uninteresting ways.
“St. Patrick’s Day” – Two and a half stars out of four
Gary Shore’s “St. Patrick’s Day” verges into body horror, introducing us to an Irish primary school teacher (Ruth Bradley) who gets on the wrong side of a mysterious, quiet student. She then becomes all too familiar with the bizarre, reptile-filled history of Saint Patrick’s Day, after becoming cursed, and subsequently impregnated with an enchanted snake. Shore gets points for the surreal nature of his story, especially as the short moves in progressively macabre directions. Bradley’s performance is worthy of praise, as well, in largely silent scenes, where her terrified, exhausted body language conveys miles’ worth of material. Yet one hopes of something more – “St. Patrick’s Day” ends fairly abruptly, on the precipice of a promising exploration of its titular holiday’s relationship with archaic mythology, but seems afraid, or unwilling, to go further.
“Easter” – Two and a half stars out of four
In Nicholas McCarthy’s “Easter”, an unnamed young girl (Ava Acres), makes a horrifying discovery when she accidentally encounters the Easter Bunny one Spring night. It turns out that this creature is not an anthropomorphic rabbit, but rather an excruciating morph of both that animal and Jesus Christ, a literal blending of the Christian and Pagan influences of the holiday. Six feet tall, flesh-colored, with whiskers sticking out of his face and a crown of thorns upon his head, the Easter Bunny proves to the little girl that some secrets should never be known. McCarthy unravels this story with an eerie atmosphere and painstakingly precise pacing, but falls short in following through after a tremendously tense buildup, yet on balance, the sketch is worth having a look, thanks to some excellent prosthetic make-up work and a strong performance from Acres.
“Mother’s Day” – Two stars out of four
A woman (Sophie Traub) has an unusual predicament in Sarah Adina Smith’s “Mother’s Day” – she can’t stop getting pregnant. It’s an endless loop – a new attempt to ramp up her birth control, yet always ending in another positive test and another abortion. This takes its toll on her, and so our protagonist finds herself at an isolated compound in the desert, at a coventry of sorts for women who are infertile. They are incensed at this woman’s ease of pregnancy, and so they kidnap her and force her to participate in a series of bizarre rituals. It seems that Smith is trying to convey some kind of message about how society views women and reproductive rights, but nothing ever comes to fruition, thanks to a thinly written script which lacks a coherent structure or anything more than a handful of nominally interesting sequence.
“Father’s Day” – Three stars out of four
A young woman named Carol (Jocelin Donahue) uncovers an old audio tape, containing a recording by her long-lost father (voice of Michael Gross). It is a simple series of instructions, requesting that Carol retrace a journey that the two went on many years ago. In Anthony Scott Burns’ “Father’s Day”, this enticing concept is used to develop a quietly haunting experience, as the slow, baritone voice of Carol’s father, accompanied by the greyish dimness of a crumbling urban dusk, lulls us into a false sense of normalcy before utterly pulling the rug out in the final few minutes. It ends as a creepy, effective one-two punch, one of the few truly inspired sketches to be seen in Holidays.
“Halloween” – One and a half stars out of four
An irate, abrasive man (Harley Mortenstein), who operates a “cam-girl” site, crosses his employees one too many times one Halloween night. His abusive behavior and selfish demeanor have finally caught up to him, and a handful of young women who work for him and his website decide to concoct an elaborate act of bloody revenge. Kevin Smith’s “Halloween” is by far the weakest segment in Holidays – it lives only on the promise of a bizarre and sadistic payoff, but is too mild-mannered to go all-in and show us anything truly repulsive. Smith makes the mistake of combining lowbrow dialogue with a middlebrow execution, and this proves to be a terribly disappointing enterprise.
“Christmas” – Three stars out of four
In Scott Stewart’s “Christmas”, a suburban family man (Seth Green) finds himself committing some desperate acts to obtain one of the hottest toys of the year as a last-minute Christmas gift. Said device is a virtual-reality object, which scans the mind of its user to display what they desire. However, the machine malfunctions, and instead presents some disturbing revelations and uncovers some secrets best left obscured. The sketch works, largely in part to the quick set-up and the infinite sea of possibilities that the basic plot allows. There are a few original twists throughout the segment which retain viewer interest, and it all ends up as a gleefully satisfying and darkly comedic trip into the minds of its main characters.
“New Year’s” – Two and a half stars out of four
Things wrap up with a final segment, written by Kölsch and Widmyer, and directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer. In “New Year’s”, a serial killer (Andrew Bowen) happens upon a blind date (Lorenza Izzo), who shares many of his same perversions. The logline is as simple as that. Mortimer isn’t a very showy director, but he does take the script’s somewhat predictable twist ending and squeezes it for everything he’s got. However, the short ends right where things get interesting. After turning its original concept on its head, “New Year’s” falls under the presumption of many of these other segments – that a short running time excuses a faint plot.
And there are my capsule reviews for Holidays. You can tell that I’m not particularly enthusiastic about any of them. The problem is that many of them waste good concepts on shoddy executions, or fail to expand on their seasonal setting beyond a few occasional references (“Halloween” and “New Year’s” are particularly egregious offenders here) – and since the shorts are so unaware of each other’s existence, I don’t feel bad about recommending that you skip through and only watch a couple of them. All in all, this is an example of an admirable project that doesn’t quite live up to the hype of its conceits.