A film that shoots for cheap shock value and nothing more.
Even in the most capable hands, horror anthologies tend to suffer from tonal inconsistency, which is often overcompensated for with a contrived overarching theme. With the underwhelming XX (2017), it was all-female directors and women-centric stories that tied together the disparate threads, while the refreshing Southbound (2016) weaved its stories together by having the various narratives intersect on the same doomed stretch of desert highway. Bet you’ll never guess the theme behind Holidays.
Surprisingly, this 2016 anthology flounders not from the unevenness that’s typical of its format, but rather from a bland uniformity that too often leads its horror shorts—which each take a different holiday and infuse it with heavy-handed darkness—to punctuate their brief running times with startling final images of their respective monsters. That monstrous element varies in each installment, from supernatural menace to body horror to violent psychopaths, but each short (with the exception, perhaps, of the unserious grotesquery of Kevin Smith’s “Halloween,” which ends instead in a cheesy pun) leads the viewer toward bleak yet wildly unsubtle and abrupt conclusions that never earn their sense of dread.
The most ominous atmosphere is set by “Father’s Day,” as Carol (Jocelin Donahue) encounters an old tape recording that her long-lost dad left before he vanished under mysterious circumstances when she was just a young girl. This voice from the past, the deliberateness of which seems to imply a sinister intent from the outset, coaxes Carol to the same beach where they played on the day he disappeared, and ultimately to the very spot where he took leave of this world. He insists that she can cross over and join him now that she’s old enough, but all the unnerving buildup gets absolutely no payoff, as a cheap CGI ghoulie greets Carol before the screen cuts to black.
Daddy issues also bubble up on “Valentine’s Day,” by Starry Eyes director Kevin Kolsch, in which a relentlessly bullied high-school swimmer (Madeleine Coghlan) is teased for keeping the box cutter with which her father killed himself. She ultimately uses the tool to cut out the heart of her bully (Savannah Kennick) so she can present it as a grisly gift to her heart-transplant-needing swim coach (Rick Peters), with whom she’s deeply infatuated. By turning the bullied girl into a deranged murderer who wordlessly stalks the bully, hair draped over her face as though she just emerged from the well in The Ring, the short film exploits the real-life horrors wrought by bullying, opting instead to angle toward a less-paranormal Carrie vibe that lands with a thud.
Elsewhere, motherhood fuels an unsettling narrative. The anthology’s weakest segment, “Mother’s Day,” introduces the intriguing concept of a woman (Sophie Traub) who gets pregnant every time she has sex no matter the level of contraception used, but then it quickly unravels into ayahuasca-fueled evil-maternity-cult nonsense that culminates in a bloody adult arm inexplicably shooting out of the “portal” of the woman’s womb and grabbing her leg. In “St. Patrick’s Day,” a single school teacher Elizabeth (Ruth Bradley) who’s desperate for a baby unexpectedly finds herself pregnant–but pregnant with what? An educational film about the myth of St. Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland should give you a hint. Turns out that the woman’s creepy redheaded pupil (Isolt McCaffrey) used a rope-snake totem to aid the girl’s pagan cult to deceptively impregnate Elizabeth with a serpentine spawn that the new mother nevertheless loves upon its demonic birth. If that sounds a little like Rosemary’s Baby, that’s for good reason—her OB/GYN refers to the predicament as “Rosemary’s reptile” because, again, there’s no room for subtlety here. But unlike Polanski’s film, this makes the mistake of actually showing the creature, which also sports a Grease-esque pompadour that deflates otherwise notable tension-building in another shock conclusion that can’t be taken seriously.
Given the rich legends behind our holidays, which could be more artfully subverted than anything found here, this film feels like a collection of missed opportunities. With crisp, vivid cinematography and some nimble editing that can be both clever (“New Year’s Eve” jump-cutting from brain splatter to a bowl of oatmeal) and atmospheric (quick cuts of a knife chopping vegetables and a pot boiling water in “St. Patrick’s Day”), it’s disappointing to see heady topics like bullying, grief, existential anxiety, consumerism, loneliness, and technology ultimately only used as gimmicks. In the “Easter” segment, when a young girl (Ava Acres) expresses confusion at how the holiday celebrates both an egg-gifting rabbit and a reanimated-corpse god, this brief focus on the strange relationship people have with both folklore and religion ultimately manifests in the appearance of a ghoulish Bunny Christ monster, an apt mascot for a film that shoots for cheap shock value and nothing more.