Holiday horror and the anthology format have always struck me as the perfect combination. Like peanut butter and chocolate, the two were always destined to be together, and I know I’m not alone in this belief.
Many filmmakers have crafted festive collections showing a darker side to all manner of annual celebrations, from Valentine’s Day to Christmas (A Christmas Horror Story and Holidays come to mind). Heck, this year Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights even got in the fun, devoting an entire house to a haunted version of popular holidays.
HOLIDAY HELL opens on a chilly Christmas Eve. Amelia (Meagan Karimi-Naser) is looking for a last-minute gift for her sister at the quirky antiques and curiosity’s shop, Nevertold Casket Co. You see, her sister’s tastes lean toward the macabre, and Nevertold’s unique collection of human skulls, ouija boards, coffins, caskets, and taxidermy, may just have the perfect present.
Even so, the shopkeeper, (Jeffrey Combs) is hesitant. Most of the people who come into his shop “like to look around, they ask questions, but they don’t particularly like to spend money.” But Amelia won’t be deterred. With a fist full of hundreds and a winning smile, she assures the man she’s not one of those people.
And so Amelia begins exploring the shop’s more interesting artifacts, which serve as the catalyst for the anthology’s various segments.
First, there’s the cracked porcelain mask that belonged to a woman called “Dollface.” Left to rot in an insane asylum after the murder of her family, “Dollface” has become more of a legend than a fact to the teenagers who decide to party in her abandoned house on Valentine’s Day.
Then there is the doll gifted to a young boy for Hanukkah. It was crafted by a Rabbi in Germany long ago, but there’s more to this toy than a good backstory and creepy smile. When the boy’s babysitter turns out to have criminal intentions, his new gift might just turn out to be the kind that keeps on giving.
Back at the shop, Amelia still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, but she can’t help but ask about the blood-stained Santa suit in the corner.
That suit belonged to a down-on-his-luck pharmaceutical employee. Passed on for a promotion and stuck in a failing marriage, Chris (Joel Murray in the stand out performance of the movie) is pushed over the edge at the company Christmas party when he discovers his wife banging his most hated coworker. What’s a sad Santa to do but pop a few pills and grab a saw blade?
It’s nearly midnight at Nevertold Casket Co. and Amelia still hasn’t found the perfect gift. It looks like she’s about to give up, but before she goes, the shopkeeper flips the script to ask her about her ring. Looks like it’s Amelia’s turn to tell him a story, and oh what a story it is.
I had a fun time with HOLIDAY HELL and I think you will too. Each segment is short and to the point, setting the scene quickly and bringing the over-the-top violence just as fast.
While you can tell the filmmakers didn’t have a big studio budget for the film, a great amount of care went into crafting their movie, and nowhere is that more clear than the props that represent the four-film segments. The design and production of the porcelain mask and the Hanukkah doll are especially effective, although I’m sure the filmmakers shook a fist at the sky when Incident in a Ghostland dropped a poster with a similar cracked mask design.
A special nod to actor Joel Murray, who goes from an infinitely relatable loser to a maniacal strung out killing machine with an ease that’s a joy to watch. You’ll love every moment of his performance, but don’t miss his masterful drunken walk through the snow. Acting inebriated is hard, folks, but Murray will have you fooled.
And of course, we have to talk about Jeffrey Combs. Combs has been a horror staple since the 80s with characters like Herbert West and Crawford Tillinghast, and he’s still turning out fantastic work to this day. I don’t know that the Shopkeeper will become as iconic as the pencil snapping West, but Combs inhabits the role beautifully.
Of course, a horror film is not just what you see, it’s what you hear, and the score truly elevates every scene. From traditional strings and brass, accented with cheerful sleigh bells, to menacing synth lines, composer Semih Tareen’s work acts as the perfect bow to tie the film together into a complete holiday package.
I was a little miffed at the inclusion of Valentine’s Day in a movie that otherwise focused on December Holidays. The classic goofy slasher segment played well, but it seemed to me it could have just as easily have been set on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, or even Boxing Day.
But I digress.
If you’re not looking forward to wrapping all those presents leading up to the big day, pop on HOLIDAY HELL to get you through, it’s a great combo of naughty and nice campy good frights. HOLIDAY HELL is now out on Digital and DVD.