Directed by Jeremy Berg, David Burns, Jeff Ferrell and Jeff Vigil. Starring Jeffrey Combs, Joel Murray, Jeff Bryan Davis, Lisa Coronado, and Meagan Karimi-Nase.
Anthology films can be like a bunch of Christmas presents. When you unwrap one and it’s lousy, you still have several more chances to get what you like.
In keeping with this holiday allusion, let’s talk about the new horror anthology film Holiday Hell. Comprised of four (loosely) holiday-themed stories, it’s competently filmed but pretty unsurprising.
On the plus side, it’s got the great Jeffrey Combs as Thaddeus Rosemont. Treading in Peter Cushing’s footsteps, he’s a shopkeeper who operates a store full of —of course — haunted objects.
On Christmas Eve, when Thaddeus is getting ready to close up for the night, a young woman named Amelia rushes in, anxious to find a last-minute gift for her sister, who tastes seem to trend toward the freaky.
He haltingly agrees to let her look around, and finally gets into the mood, telling her the stories behind each curio that strikes her fancy.
The first episode features your typical group of 20-somethings breaking into an abandoned house to party for the night. Of course, it’s not really abandoned — there’s a strange creature wearing a grubby porcelain mask creeping around. She waits for kids to separate from the herd, so she can pick them off one by one.
What keeps this episode watchable to the end is wanting to find out who this weirdo with the mask is.
Among the stock characters, there’s a deaf girl, who’s at least something different. But when she stumbles upon a corpse, she pantomimes Munch’s The Scream. Does that really happen? And when another girl takes her boyfriend outside to give him some — ahem — oral attention, he shouts, “Yee-HAH!” at the climactic moment, even though he doesn’t seem to be a cowboy.
That isn’t the first strange sex sound we’ll hear in Holiday Hell.
The filmmakers must have had limited budget for special effects. In most of the episodes, you get one good onscreen death and the rest occur offscreen.
The Hand That Rocks the Dreidel
It’s the last night of Hanukkah, and Kevin’s parents give him a really creepy-looking, ancient rabbi doll. Dumping him with Lisa, a babysitter with a nasty attitude, they head off to Germany on a business trip.
The minute they leave, Lisa locks Kevin in his room and orders him not to try to come out until his parents return. But he overhears her on the phone plotting to rob the house with her equally sleazy boyfriend. Fortunately, the rabbi doll turns out to be a Golem, and it comes to life to help Kevin dispatch the marauders.
Though this episode works slightly better than the first, it still has the cheesiest effect in the whole film. When the knife-wielding doll cuts Lisa’s Achiles tendon to slow her down, the leg in the close-up shot is so obviously made of Silly Putty (it’s even the wrong color) that it’s hilarious.
The familiar character actor (and Bill Murray’s brother) Joel Murray stars in this one. He’s Chris, a cuckolded husband who works for a pharmaceutical company. On the day of the office Christmas party, he finds out that he’d been passed over for a promotion, which instead had been given to Tom, a cocky young “go-getter” type.
At the party, he’s dressed as Santa, but he’s not feeling anywhere near jolly. When he sees his wife go off with Tom, he follows them to find out what they’re up to. Of course, they’re getting busy in a back room. Here’s where the other strange sex sound comes in. In the midst of coitus, Tom shouts, “Merry Christmas!”
Chris goes to a nearby bar to drown his sorrows. He also takes some experimental pills that his boss had given him, which makes him go completely psycho. He goes back to the party to find Tom sniffing cocaine off the naked breasts of yet another woman, and the killing spree begins.
Murray’s sad sack character manages to generate some sympathy, and the film’s most cringe-inducing murder takes place in this episode.
Room To Let
Amelia is wearing a ring that intrigues Thaddeus, so this time it’s her turn to tell the story behind it.
A young woman named Anna arrives in an idyllic small town to start a new life and rents a room from a couple who seem a little too nice, like they’re in a cult or something. Get it? They also both bear the same ring that Amelia is wearing (foreshadowing!). She gradually becomes aware that others are wearing the same ring.
She goes to town in search of a job and, although she has no experience, a friendly-seeming shopowner agrees to give her a chance. As she’s leaving, his panicked daughter tries to warn her about something, but she can’t speak. When she opens her mouth, Anna can see that her tongue is half-gone!
If you’ve seen The Wicker Man or Midsommar, you know where this story is going to go.
The film wraps it all up back in the haunted shop for the de rigueur “shock ending.” While it’s not the worst way to spend 90 minutes, one wishes there had been more of a surprise among these packages.
Holiday Hell is a Tubi exclusive before it comes to DVD on Nov. 5.
Feature photo: Jeffrey Combs and Meagan Karimi-Naser. Photos courtesy Uncork’d Entertainment.