Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to Katie Armstrong at October Coast PR for allowing me early access to an online screener of the new Holiday-themed anthology “Holiday Hell”, bought to us by Black Sunday Productions and Co-Writers/Directors, Jeff Ferrell and Jeff Vigil. In the same vein of films like “Tales Of Halloween” and “A Christmas Horror Story”, Holiday Hell presents us with four short holiday-themed stories and a wraparound segment. Amelia (played by Meagan Karimi-Naser) stumbles into an eccentric antique store on Christmas Eve just as The Shopkeeper (Jeffrey Combs of Re-Animator) is preparing to close up. After a little twisting of his arm, Amelia manages to talk him into staying back later in order to help her find the perfect Christmas present for her sister. What unfolds on screen are the owners first hand accounts of stories he was told pertaining to some of the store’s most prominent relics. The film also stars Joel Murray (God Bless America), Amber Stonebraker (Between The Trees), Ailsa Marshall (Act Of Valor), Jeffrey Arrington, Lisa Carswell, McKenna Ralston, and Forrest Campbell.
Holiday Hell opens to the sound of bells and double bass, and then quickly transitions into moody violin and keys as our centerpiece Amelia enters the store in “Never Told Casket Co”. There’s a series of trendy credits that run throughout the beginning as well. Combs is a delight and he just so happens to be quite the storyteller (I know, I’ve met him haha). His interactions with Meagan are some of the best in the film and the way in which their arcs unfold is at the very least, interesting. The first segment is titled “Dollface”, in which a group of young teens (or college students) has an impromptu get together at the once infamous but now abandoned house of a troubled girl they used to go to school with. It’s the “slasher” portion of the anthology, and as one might predict, the killer dons a doll mask. The casting of a couple of attractive leads in Natasha Duvall and Reza Leal-Smartt (I think it was) certainly doesn’t hurt the watchability factor, and there’s one simple but effective shot where blood hits a photo frame in quite a cool way. Semih Tareen’s synth score gives proceedings a little life but unfortunately just about everything else here is lacking. All of the characters are so unlikeable and the dialogue is extremely juvenile (with words like omg and af), some of it even homophobic in nature. The inclusion of a random oral sex scene involving possibly the least southern guy you could imagine (despite him whaling yehawwwww!) is yet another cringeworthy moment. I’m not sure why the Jock makes it a point to reference electronics only to later mention that the place doesn’t actually have power? There’s a sizeable exposition dump in the final act, but by the time it comes, you’ll likely have lost interest in the inner-workings of these murders.
Next up is a Jewish tale called “Hand That Rocks The Dreidel” (classic pun right there). It’s a contained suburbia story about Kevin, a young boy (played by Forrest Campbell) who receives a Hebrew rabbi puppet from his parents shortly before they head away for the weekend. Little do his folks know that Lisa, the babysitter (played by Katy Perry’s double Amber Stonebraker) has plans of her own while they’re gone. What she doesn’t know though, is that there’s a curse attached to the toy and she’s about to get more than she bargained for. Tareen’s score is strong again throughout this second segment. There are some classical strokes and plenty of synth, bass, and string notes to add to the atmosphere. It’s well shot and contains key foley, the highlight being the pitter-patter of tiny doll feet. The casting of Lisa Coronado as Janet (the mother) ends up clashing quite substantially with Stonebraker though, with the two very difficult to tell apart. I’ve never got the whole gangster white boy thing, this time that lingo is exhibited by Brian Sutherland, who plays Trey, Lisa’s boyfriend. There’s a fun piece of action toward the end, even if the prosthetic does look rather cheaply made.
“Christmas Carnage” is bound to go down as the real crowd-pleaser of Holiday Hell. We’re introduced to Chris, a middle-aged and mild-mannered office worker (played by the underrated Joel Murray) living a fairly mundane existence with his cold-shouldered wife, Susan (Marshall) and their young daughter. Whilst doing all he can to secure a promotion at work, Chris discovers the secret his wife has been keeping from him which ultimately becomes the catalyst in his drunken and murderous rampage during a work party. Next to Combs, Murray is the most experienced of this anthology’s cast (having acted on Dharma and Greg for five years and racked up a number of other credits) and he does a great job here, in a role that’s not too dissimilar to his character of Frank in “God Bless America”. The score is a bit quirkier this time around with an emphasis on bells, horns, and even some saxophone. Chris expels some pretty cheesy puns to go with plenty of the red stuff. The practical fx look good and although the resolution is very by the book, it kind of works. This one is likely to be for fans of “Silent Night Deadly Night”.
The last of the four yarns is called “Room To Let” and it takes place on the Jenne Farm, a piece of private countryside land owned by Lavinia (Carswell) and her husband, Robert (Arrington). Anna, a young drifter (McKenna Ralston) takes up lodging at the old house which is situated in a quaint little town. However, she soon discovers not all that glistens is gold and there may be more going on in town than first meets the eye. Semih mixes up his musical style this time around, opting for more ominous tones with piano and strings in order to establish roots of family mystery. It’s competently shot, sounds good, and most of the performances are decent. Arrington brings the required intensity to Robert, and in turn signals that he’s clearly the standout of the bunch. In contrast, I feel perhaps he’s seemingly a little too young (or at least looks it) to play Lavinia’s husband (and in turn Carswell’s). The specific time period that Room To Let takes place in is an unknown, and much like in a couple of the other stories, the direction settled on with the specifics just so happens to be the predictable one.
Like most anthology films and especially low-budget ones, Holiday Hell can be described as a mixed bag. Aiming for the lofty heights of modern entries like “V/H/S 2” and “Trick r Treat” is likely to be unattainable for most. Ferrell and Vigil’s writing could use a little work but the creative juices are clearly flowing and ostensibly best on display in both Christmas Carnage and Hand That Rocks The Dreidel. The overall production value isn’t bad, the score is an accomplished one, and the actors are generally on the ball in key moments. If you like your low-budget anthologies then give the official trailer a look. Holiday Hell is currently only showing in limited theatres in the US, but keep an eye out for an official release soon!
Holiday Hell – 5.5/10