[Review] 'Holiday Hell' isn't the finest gift to hit screens, but is still a fun watch for the holiday season
Discovering a new holiday horror film is like unwrapping a gift. It’s linked to a special occasion, there’s a tingly sense of giddiness at what awaits, and even though the outside might look sleek and shiny, there’s no guarantee that the contents will be enjoyable, but hey, at least it’s something, right?...
…Such is the case with Holiday Hell, an anthology winter holiday horror film from directors Jeff Ferrell (Dead West), Jeff Vigil, David Burns, and Jeremy Berg (The Invoking) adapted from a screenplay by Ferrell and Vigil. They’re all relatively fresh faces in the horror game, and while you can see them getting their sea legs here, together they’re able to steer their festive ship to safe harbor.
The night before Christmas Eve, a young woman (Meagan Karimi-Naser) enters a strange curio shop in search of a unique, last-minute gift for her sister. Though hesitant at first due to the late hour, the eccentric shopkeeper (Jeffrey Combs) agrees to show her around, explaining the histories behind several of the items the young woman expresses interest in, each tale more disturbing than the last. As the night, and the stories, creep on, the tension in the shop rises. Things are not what they seem in the Nevertold Casket Co. shop, and danger lurks behind every macabre collectible.
In “Dollface,” the first segment wherein the shopkeeper reveals the origin behind a sallow, cracked doll’s mask, a group of mid-twenties “teens” break into an abandoned suburban split-level for requisite drinking, drugs, and sex play. The house has sat empty since a murder-suicide on a long-ago Valentine’s Day left the two young daughters traumatized and locked away in an asylum. But they didn’t stay locked up, as our rowdy teens are quick to discover. The titular Dollface has returned to her former home, ready to enact revenge on these trespassers. Though she’s knocking them off seemingly because they’re literal home invaders (the house still legally belongs to the daughters for some reason), the optics are standard slasher fare: moral misbehavior buys you violent death. Despite the paint-by-numbers approach, there’s some impressive effects given the film’s modest budget. Dollface is also quite creepy, sporting Samara-style long, black curtained hair and the aforementioned doll’s mask. Any lazy writing and subpar acting (of which there is plenty in this segment) can be overlooked by the dedication to the gore and grit.
The mask doesn’t strike the young woman’s fancy, and she turns her attention to an unsettling rabbi doll that is for sure a cousin of the Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror. Thus begins “The Hand that Rocks the Dreidel,” the second segment in which a pair of loving parents (Lisa Coronado & Tom Stewart) leave their precious young son Kevin (Forrest Campbell) in the care of his secretly bitchy babysitter Lisa (Amber Stonebraker) while they head off to Germany for the week. Lisa quickly invites her scuzzy boyfriend Trey (Brian Sutherland) over to rob the place, but what she hasn’t counted on is Kevin’s new toy, the rabbi doll, coming to life and getting a little knife-happy in the tradition of all great horror dolls. This is the shortest segment of the bunch, with the filmmakers relying more on sound than camerawork to convey the mechanics of the doll. It works, but I found myself wanting the mini-rabbi to be a bit more active than he was in the end. This segment also suffers from something that hindered the Dollface story as well, and that’s supremely unlikable characters. While it makes it easy to root for such characters to be dispatched in horrific fashion, it can be grating watching and waiting for their demise to arrive, even with such a short runtime.
I found “Christmas Carnage,” the third story detailing how a bloody Santa Claus suit got its stains, to be the most interesting, and that’s entirely due to Joel Murray’s (Mad Men, Hatchet) portrayal as disgruntled, trying-his-damndest, recovering alcoholic Chris. The poor man can’t catch a break at home or at work, and so when both worlds dump on him at once, he decides to break his sobriety and try one of his company’s “Sunshine” pills, leading to gory results. Murray is a delight to watch, capturing every nuance as Chris transforms from beatdown, middle-aged dad to full blown psychopath. The story once again circles cliche, but it’s saved by the acting and the more serious, sad overtone of the segment. I was also pleased to see the film nod to Silent Night, Deadly Night without outright copying such a staple holiday slasher.
It’s here that the tables turn back in the shop. It’s now the young woman, Amelia, who tells the old shopkeeper a story, that of the ring he’s eyed on her finger and offered to purchase. In “Room to Let,” independent young Anna (McKenna Ralston) strikes out on her own, finding her way to a small farm town where she rents a room with Lavinia (Lisa Carswell) and Robert (Jeffrey Arrington). But Anna soon comes to suspect that her welcoming, over-friendly landlords are hiding something, and because this a horror movie we know that she’s right. Once again the plot keeps to a pretty even keel and there’s not too many surprises in this segment, but there’s some cool effects in the story’s climax worth applauding.
The fourth and final story also provides a link that joins the narrative with the frame story and leads into an unexpected but welcome conclusion to the film as a whole. It can be tricky to land the denouement of an anthology, but Holiday Hell hits its end beats perfectly. While it’s not the most original film in terms of story or dialogue, and the acting is uneven at best, it’s well-shot and competently directed and you can tell the filmmakers have poured a lot of love and hard work into this project. For a low-budget genre film, it holds up well.
Though there’s room for improvement and not every moment sparkles like tinsel, Holiday Hell still makes for a fine ornament to add to the holiday horror tree, especially for lovers of anthologies and Jeffrey Combs; and if neither of those applies to you, you’re a Scrooge.
Holiday Hell is enjoying a limited theatrical run through Uncork’d Entertainment and can be unwrapped exclusively on Tubi October 15, and on DVD/VOD November 5.
By Craig Ranallo