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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Holidays  (2016)
2 Stars
Directed by Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, Gary Shore, Nicholas McCarthy, Sarah Adina Smith, Anthony Scott Burns, Kevin Smith, Scott Stewart, Adam Egypt Mortimer.
Cast: Madeleine Coghlan, Savannah Kennick, Rick Peters, Ruth Bradley, Isolt McCaffrey, Ava Acres, Petra Wright, Mark Steger, Sophie Traub, Jocelin Donahue, Michael Gross, Harley Morenstein, Harley Quinn Smith, Ashley Greene, Olivia Roush, Seth Green, Clare Grant, Kalos Cluff, Shawn Parsons, Lorenza Izzo, Andrew Bowen.
2016 – 104 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of an R for strong violence and gore, sexual content and nudity, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, April 11, 2016.
A holidays-spanning horror anthology is a concept so ingenious it is rather unbelievable it has never before been utilized on film. Because story possibilities are limitless, however, "Holidays" comes off all the more like a disappointing missed opportunity. For every successful segment—and there are a few that are pretty terrific—there are just as many, if not more, that feel like tossed-together afterthoughts. Each one of these macabre cinematic morsels should treat its namesake holiday with imagination and reverence, not glaringly shoehorn its celebratory date into a plot that otherwise has little or nothing to do with it. The lack of a wraparound story or a connective framework between these eight pint-sized, chronologically arranged episodes additionally lends the proceedings a curiously empty air.

Echoes of 1976's Brian De Palma-directed "Carrie" reverberate through "Valentine's Day," written and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (2014's "Starry Eyes"). Mousy teenager Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) is ceaselessly made fun of by the rest of her swim team while the object of her affection, Coach Rockwell (Rick Peter), looks on. When she receives an innocent heart-shaped card from Coach Rockwell in her locker, it is the inspiration she needs to finally seek revenge on head mean girl Heidi (Savannah Kennick). "Valentine's Day" is atmospherically shot, the bright primary colors which punctuate Max's starry daydreams standing in stark contrast to the brutal violence she is driven to commit. The setup is less assured, going so over-the-top in the girls' bullying it doesn't make sense why Coach Rockwell, whose later actions signal obvious empathy for Max, stands by and doesn't utter a single word to reprimand them.

Gary Shore's (2014's "Dracula Untold") "St. Patrick's Day" blends the unsettling with the surreal as elementary school teacher Elizabeth Cullen (Ruth Bradley) is cursed by evil student Grainne (Isolt McCaffrey) after showing her class a video on the history of Saint Patrick. Legend has it this fifth-century missionary and bishop allegedly banished all snakes out of Ireland, but one such reptile has seemingly taken up space in Elizabeth's womb. There are no shamrocks or gold-seeking leprechauns to be found in "St. Patrick's Day," but writer-director Shore has concocted a nightmarishly squirmy premise all the same (the surprise appearance of a character from a popular Broadway musical would have been best left on the cutting-room floor, though).

One of the top two highlights of "Holidays" arrives next with "Easter," a genuinely frightening yarn wherein an inquisitive youngster (Ava Acres) makes the grave mistake of leaving her bedroom in the middle of the night for a glass of water just as the Easter Bunny arrives at her house. Directed by Nicholas McCarthy (2014's "At the Devil's Door"), "Easter" is impishly incendiary in the best way, taking a devil-may-care approach to its provocative, spiritually challenging subject matter. There is also at least one expertly effective jump scare.

Things plummet sharply with the lame "Mother's Day," directed with little spark or momentum by Sarah Adina Smith (2015's "The Midnight Swim"). Kate (Sophie Traub) is a highly fertile young woman who gets pregnant every time she has sex. With twenty abortions under her belt, she finds herself at a desert retreat alongside women who desperately yearn for just one child. Even clocking in at just over ten minutes, it is easy to lose interest in the draggy "Mother's Day."

Losing interest is an impossibility when it comes to the unforgettable next segment. Proving relative inexperience does not necessarily translate to lesser quality, Anthony Scott Burns (visual effects artist on 2013's "The Last Exorcism Part II," making a stunning directorial splash) runs away with the strongest short of the collection, the deeply haunted, unnerving "Father's Day." When Carol (Jocelin Donahue) unexpectedly receives a cassette tape recorded by her thought-dead father (Michael Gross) on the fateful day years ago when he went missing, she hopes it will be the key to unlocking the mystery of his disappearance. As she follows his voice and the directions he provides to his whereabouts, "Father's Day" weaves a beyond-creepy maelstrom of dread.

Don't get too excited if the thought of Kevin Smith (2014's "Tusk") directing an All Hallows' Eve short sounds enticing, as his "Halloween" is a slipshod effort that feels like an old script Smith has repurposed to fit the criteria of this project. Following three teenage webcam girls (Harley Quinn Smith, Ashley Greene, Olivia Roush) as they seek revenge on their disrespectful pig of a boss Ian (Harley Morenstein), "Halloween" is a waste of what should be the centerpiece of a holiday anthology, and precious few attempts are made to incorporate the spooky hallmarks inherent in this night. Smith's casting of 16-year-old daughter Harley Quinn Smith as an 18-year-old internet porn performer is eyebrow-raising, though she continues to be a promising up-and-coming actor.

"Holidays" concludes with a Yuletide duo that are too similar to each other by a half and equally forgettable—not exactly the note one hopes for as a filmic anthology draws to a close. In "Christmas," directed by Scott Stewart (2013's "Dark Skies"), family man Pete Gunderson (Seth Green) is in search of much-coveted virtual reality glasses on Christmas Eve (the tagline: "Your imagination come to life!"). When he witnesses the businessman (Shawn Parsons) who has just purchased the last set have a heart attack in the parking lot, he takes advantage of this darkly serendipitous turn of events and swipes the gift. He and wife Sara (Clare Grant) are about to get far more than they bargained for. In "New Year's," Adam Egypt Mortimer (2015's "Some Kind of Hate") pairs together two lonely singletons, Jean (Lorenza Izzo) and Reggie (Andrew Bowen), searching for a date as the final hours of the year count down. What neither yet knows is that they are both hiding a deadly secret. The problem with both "Christmas" and "New Year's" is their thematic and, eventually, narrative parallels by the end. These shorts are overly familiar and not particularly scary, concluding the film as a whole on a somewhat deflated note.

As fun as the anthology format is, there is also the tendency for some stories to be better than others. This can work to a movie's benefit since a dud in the bunch is temporary, often making way for something superior within a matter of a few minutes. An uneven collection, alas, can also be a detriment if said tales are not satisfyingly ordered. This is where "Holidays" runs into problems and cuts short from being the inventively ghoulish grab-bag it hopes to be. "Easter" and "Father's Day," in particular, are worth seeing on their own, but many of the holidays are squandered by their filmmakers, and the final three—"Halloween," "Christmas" and "New Year's"—are mediocre at best and unworthy of their titles at worst. "Holidays" is an exciting idea that appears to have been pieced together without the proper time to develop and realize its thrilling potential.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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