From the classic 1982 smash “Creepshow” to more recent successes like 2012’s “V/H/S” and 2015’s “Southbound,” the horror anthology holds a place deep in the heart of fans. Though the overall tone of the platform can be uneven, its ramshackle charm allows the visionaries behind these shorts to explore twisted ideas in as efficient a manner as possible.
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Part of what makes “Holidays” a devious delight is in bucking low expectations. With nine directors on tap to bring us eight spooky stories of the holidays, this easily could have been a by-the-numbers slice-and-dice parody. Yet the bulk of the tales reach for something stranger, unravelling the core of each holiday’s origins and spinning a sinister web.
Unfortunately, the proceedings begin on a bum note via Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s “Valentine’s Day.” Seemingly engineered backwards from a grim punchline, this tale of high school bullying and lust borrows heavily from both “Carrie” and Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” remake. While it seems designed to initiate casual fans into the festive theme, it is largely forgettable and doesn’t capitalize on the energy from the duo’s great debut, 2014’s “Starry Eyes.”
But things get really interesting with the next segment, Gary Shore’s “St. Patrick’s Day.” The Irish director of 2014’s “Dracula Untold” eschews an easy opportunity to parody drunk Americans, instead choosing to kick off a theme of parenthood that runs deep through the film. (Perhaps the scariest part of the holidays is facing your family…) But this psychedelic fable about a grade school teacher praying for her own pregnancy—with eerie consequences—recalls one of the stranger elements of St. Patrick’s legacy. This frenetic chapter is anchored by the heartbreaking lead performance of Ruth Bradley, who is able to remain empathetic while erasing the line between hope and fanaticism.
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A mini-masterclass in tension follows with Nicholas McCarthy’s “Easter.” Continuing to showcase the slow-burn dread that made 2012’s “The Pact” a twisted treat, a mother and daughter discuss the strange dichotomy between the holiday’s two symbols: the Easter Bunny and Jesus Christ. A visitor in the night proves said bond to be sinister and showcases some solid (and gross!) makeup effects.
Fertility struggles revisit in the sun-soaked desert nightmare “Mothers’ Day.” Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, the film stars Sophie Traub as Kate, a woman who gets pregnant every time she has sex, no matter what contraceptives she uses. In search of answers, Kate visits a women’s retreat, where there is more than meets the eye. Although it leans heavily on traditional witchcraft lore, Smith has a creative eye that enhances the material, which leads to a fun scare at the end.
“Fathers’ Day” is, by far, the film’s strongest entry. Led by the criminally-underrated scream queen Jocelin Donahue (she’s fantastic in 2009’s “The House of the Devil”), this mystery follows a woman named Carol (Donahue), who receives a strange cassette tape from the father she thought dead. It contains a message from her father (the literally pitch-perfect voice of Michael Gross), and she follows the directions he recites, leading her into a mysterious part of her town. Playing detective leads to some unexpected conclusions—but, thanks to the steady direction of Anthony Scott Burns, the truth stays under your skin long after the film ends.
“Halloween” is perhaps the highest-profile segment. It was written and directed by Kevin Smith, and continues his penchant for horror that began with 2011’s “Red State.” A revenge story set in the world of webcam sex slavery, the short brings torture porn to a new, more-literal level, but isn’t going to keep you up at night. Credit the brief running time for one of the most focused Smith productions in years, as it keeps an eye on the prize and eschews the verbal indulgences that have hindered recent efforts like “Tusk” & “Yoga Hosers.” Fun while it lasts, this is one of the wispier segments, concluding with a shrug of an ending.
Next up, another tale that focuses on technology: Director Scott Stewart aims for a “Black Mirror”-esque chiller with “Christmas.” Seth Green stars as a harried father who makes a very questionable decision in order to get his son the perfect VR gift—but soon, twisted visions flood the headset. Given that the short ends just as things heat up, this seems less like a complete story as much as the demo reel of a timely, would-be full feature.
Last is the quick “New Year’s,” which is helmed by Adam Egypt Mortimer. Starring Lorenza Izzo as a quiet girl who unwittingly goes on a online date from hell with a murderer, this tale has some nice twists that gorehounds will enjoy.
“Holidays” is a fun romp with flashes of brilliance. The lesser-established filmmakers stepped their game up, and segments like “Fathers’ Day” and “Mothers’ Day” continue to justify the existence of horror anthologies. With plenty of dusty corners of YouTube offering bite-sized scares, it may seem less necessary to round up sharp minds with
succinct ideas and small budgets. But the visions of these directors are so uniquely film
that it adds a depth and scope to each nasty little morsel. It demands more attention than the screen of your iPhone. When creative voices in horror scream this loud, it inspires you to listen. Perhaps that’s the true gift of these multi-director mashups: Come for the Kevin Smith piece, but stay for the killer new talent with nothing to lose.
This all speaks to the unique community of the genre. Horror fans have always felt like outsiders, with naysayers tuning out at the first spurt of blood. Yet the anthology thrives because it allows fans to spend time with directors who become friends via shared interest — a band of outsiders united by a love of spooks, gore and mayhem. Seeing how visionaries new and old foster an idea of things that go bump in the night is what keeps viewers coming back for more, and when anthologies add as many twists as “Holidays,” aficionados are always ready for the next installment.