Fans of horror will know the anthology movie format is nothing new. It’s been done countless times, even back to the 70s with Tales From The Crypt, and most of the time it’s executed to a pretty good degree. I’m a big fan of the first two Creepshow films, Tales From The Darkside (the unofficial third Creepshow, as I like to call it), the V/H/S series, Body Bags, Tales From The Hood and a handful of other entries in the subgenre. My affinity for the aforementioned films had me very curious to check out Holiday Hell, a new film featuring genre stalwart Jeffrey Combs as well as Joel Murray (yes, Bill Murray’s brother), Lisa Coronado (Twin Peaks) and a handful of other notable cast. While it may be a paint-by-numbers horror anthology film, using the same formula from some of the movies I just mentioned, it does have its merits.
The story begins with Amelia desperately seeking a Christmas gift for her sister the night before Christmas Eve. She stumbles across a curiosity shop displaying taxidermy, funeral items and other bizarre items. Once inside the shop she’s greeted by Thaddeus Rosemont, who guides the wraparound narrative into each story. He plays the character very well, as if that was ever going to be a question. Well spoken, brooding but welcoming, and mysterious all come to mind when describing the shopkeeper of Nevertold Casket Co. “All of the items in this shop have a story behind them,” he proclaims in the introduction of the film, and a few seconds later we’re off to our first entry.
The vignettes begin with another classic horror scenario: a gaggle of teenagers partying in a house where a grisly murder took places years before are picked off by a hidden killer within the home’s walls. Some of the exposition is a little strange (the couple in the murder are refered to as Ken and Barb Doll, which it’s unclear if those are their real names or just a catty nickname given to them by the neighborhood kids) and it’s hard to tell if the actors playing the doomed group are legitimately bad actors or they’re just acting over the top for the story’s sake, but it strangely works. Most of the kills happen offscreen, although I did like the idea of a Barbie leg to the jugular. The story unfolds in a slasher-type fashion, with each teen being picked off by our doll-masked killer, and the twist at the end was very surprising and tied the plot together well.
Next up is the story of a rabbi doll given to a young boy by his parents on the last night of Hanukkah. Menaced by a bullying babysitter, Kevin reads a scroll hidden in the doll’s box which brings the doll to life. While it’s no Zuni fetish doll, the rabbi is extremely creepy-looking, even when acting as the antihero in the story. It does take a bit of a comedic turn watching the doll, coupled with some framing and camera tricks, do some pretty outlandish things such as moving dead bodies and cleaning up a murder scene. This one was more up my alley, as I’ve always been enamored with, and frightened by, doll horror like Child’s Play and Puppet Master.
The following story is introduced with a dirty Santa Claus costume in the corner of the oddity store, which immediately brought Silent Night Deadly Night to mind. The story follows Chris, a down on his luck guy who recently got passed up for a promotion at the pharmaceutical company. After finding his wife cheating at the company Christmas party, he combines alcohol and a new experimental dementia drug that sends him on a murderous rampage. It’s fairly standard but a fun romp, especially watching Joel Murray go on a roller coaster of emotion ranging from sheer joy to unbridled rage. Usually a killer delivering one-liners before murdering a character is too reminiscent of Freddy Krueger, but Murray really sells it as his own and does so effectively. This one is probably the grisliest story in the film, which relies more heavily on practical effects and on-screen dispatches and is a very welcomed sight. I can see why the filmmakers made this one of the headliners.
The final story of the film finds the wraparound narrative turned on its head, as Amelia tells Thaddeus the story of her ring that was passed down to her by her mother. A period piece as opposed to the current-day-looking tales before it, Anna inquires about a room for rent from Lavinia, an older woman living in an isolated country town. After becoming acquainted with Lavinia and her husband Robert, Anna wanders into town to find a job. Unfortunately for her, all she finds is that the town is harboring some bizarre secrets that put her in immediate danger. It hearkens back to classics such as Rosemary’s Baby with the “unsuspecting female protagonist thrust into a cult-like environment” angle, and unfortunately falls flat for me, as does most of the acting within. For what it’s worth, I feel the same way about Creepshow: “They’re Creeping Up On You” as the last story never grasps me as much as the other four did. Following our final story, Amelia reveals her connection to Thaddeus and gets exactly what she was looking for when she walked into Nevertold. It ties the wraparound storyline in a pretty great fashion, and Jeffrey Combs really shows how much of a national treasure he is in the movie’s final few minutes.
Holiday Hell is shot fantastically, which is a big eye-catcher for me. I think it could have been given a couple more rounds of trying to think of a title, but don’t let that affect the storytelling within. The acting is 50/50, but the well-known actors give a great performance. The score (composed by the film’s co-producer Semih Tareen) really gives the movie an added layer of depth and tension, running the gamut from creepy holiday-driven cascades to lighthearted walking music. It’s no Creepshow, but Holiday Hell will make its way into more than a few horror hounds’ December rotations.