Saturday, December 14, 2019

December to Dismember: HOLIDAY HELL (2019)

Anthology films have a rich history dating back to the earliest days of cinema when theatrical films of a more or less standardized length became the norm. The earliest example, that can be found on video (to my knowledge), is probably the 1924 German film WAXWORKS in which a wax museum owner hires a writer to create historically inaccurate stories to go with his historically inaccurate sculptures. This was later remade (or ripped off) as the well known 1988 Anthony Hickox anthology film WAXWORK. Through the years there have been stabs at anthologies outside of the horror genre, with crime, drama and comedy all popping up, but horror became a mainstay during the '70s. That decade was the apex of the horror anthology with a slew of great and not so great films, many from Hammer Studios rival Amicus. 1972 alone produced two stone-cold classics in TALES FROM THE CRYPT and ASYLUM, both Amicus. One of the things that makes the anthology so much fun is that you get three or more stories for the price of one. More importantly, if one of the stories is a dud, you have the opportunity to get your money's worth with the others. That's the way I look at it. It's a practical, risk averse format. Well, in theory anyway. These days we get anthologies that are a cheaply made mish-mash collection of short films that can't be sold any other way. The most egregious of these even go so far as to cram 20 or so very short shorts into one sad package. Fortunately for me, this is not one of those. Unfortunately for me, it's a damn far cry from the surprisingly good A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2015).

Opening with a wrap-around story that is set in an incredibly brightly lit creepy antiques shop (the items are sort of creepy, the shop is, sadly, not). We get a set-up that is undoubtedly lifted straight out of FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES (1987-1990), with Uncle Jack, err, I mean Thaddeus Rosemont (Jeffrey Combs), trying to close up his shop for the night. He is in a hurry, though we never find out why, but he decides to stay late to help a young woman, Amilia (Meagan Karimi-Naser) pick out a suitably gothic Christmas gift for her sister. Thad tells her that every gruesome item in the shop has a story behind it and the story is what makes them special. In spite of the fact that he is trying to close up, Amilia takes her time looking around before finally asking about a few things. You know where this is going. That is going to tell her some presumably scary stories. If only. The first thing Amilia asks about is a white Noh-style mask with black cracks painted on it, which leads us to our first story.

DOLLFACE: A group of annoying college kids (maybe they are supposed to be high school, who knows?) show up at a suburban tract home that is supposedly haunted. It is the former home of Ken and Barb Doll (*groan*). Worst Legend Ever has it, Barb butchered her husband and son on Valentine's Day. The daughter ended up in the loony bin and we never hear what happened to Barb, because... this legend sucks. Jock-douche type Jon (Jordan Nancarrow) alleges that the home has not been lived in since the murders some 15 years ago, in spite of the fact that it is completely dust-free, in good repair and has no evidence of pest infestation. So it's like a magic, self-cleaning, haunted tract house. Oh please. Stop. I can't take the terror. No. Please.

The kids are there to par-tay, which pretty much consists of pairing off and going to other parts of the house where they are killed off camera by someone wearing the mask that we saw in the shop and screaming "pretty!" Oddly, none of the other people inside the house can hear any of their screams. To pad things out we get bits of dialogue like when the deaf-mute, Julie (Cami Ottman), is being set up with some guy who will show up later. To sell the, err, blind date, her friend Chyna (Charnie Dondrea) tells her she needs to get laid and that she "heard he has a really nice peeeeeeenis!" I would love to tie Martin "Cinema" Scorsese to a chair and force him to watch this crap. I'll give you something to cry about!

I guess Julie has an excuse for why she doesn't hear people screaming in a single family house, given that she's a deaf mute. I was thinking for a moment that her character was a deaf-mute because the writer wanted to be inclusive and have someone with a disability as a final girl. Hahaha! Eh, no. It's so that they can make an easy joke about how when she finds a body, she opens her mouth to scream and there's nothing but silence. I'd accuse them of ripping off that exact same joke from MURDER BY DEATH (1976), but I doubt they've ever heard of it. (Spoilers start as of now) As it turns out, Chyna is the unknown sister of the crazy Doll daughter who has apparently escaped the nuthouse so that the pair can get revenge on the kids who made fun of them. Apparently there were a lot of nice kids in the neighborhood because there is only a handful to kill. At one point one of the obligatory mean girls says "this is the lamest party evaaaar." You bet your Boone's Farm, gurl.

Back at the shop, Thad decides that what this girl needs is a Hasidic jew marionette! Yep, next up is THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE DREIDEL: When the super-jewish parents (who can't be bothered to wear yarmulkes) of a 9 year old kid, Kevin (Forrest Campbell), head out on a business trip, they leave him with a Hanukkah gift that will keep him occupied while they are away - an old puppet that was made by a Rabbi in Germany. Even worse, they are leaving him with snotty babysitter Lisa (Amber Stonebraker) who has been using her position as babysitter to case the "mansion" that is supposedly loaded with valuables. Never mind that it appears to be a virtually empty demo home for yet another tract house. Kevin overhears her calling her ghetto boyfriend, Trey (Brian Sutherland), to set up the robbery while he is, unbeknownst to her, getting blown by another girl. For the record this is the second, and not final, fellatio gag in the movie. Like any 9 year old, Kevin panics and decides to read an ancient scroll written in Hebrew that was in the box with the puppet. It's like how in movies all Asians know martial arts - all Jews can read ancient Hebrew. Before you can say "Charles Band is going to sue", the puppet comes to life and well, just sort of nods his head. Ooooo, Scary!

While Lisa is pulling out plates that came off of a Bed, Bath and Beyond sale table, she reads the back and says "made in England 1895. Jackpooooot!" Uhh, never mind that real maker's marks never give a date of manufacture. Hey this is a horror movie, who is going to know about dumb stuff like that? (Spoiler alert) The puppet (off camera) scares Lisa who grabs a knife and goes looking for Kevin, but accidentally stabs Trey in the neck as he walks through the door. After much, much more of Lisa's yelling about how she is going to kill the kid, the puppet's hand is seen slicing a piece of clay - err, I mean, the back of Lisa's foot and she falls down the stairs, dead. If anyone is thinking they are going to be getting some REVENGE OF TULON action here, they are in for a bitter disappointment. Even the lowest points of the PUPPET MASTER series outshine this short. Yes, that's right, even the AXIS entries.

Once again, Amilia is just not sold and Thad figures if she doesn't want a Jewish marionette, then surely she must want a filthy, bloodstained Santa suit! I mean, who wouldn't? And so begins CHRISTMAS CARNAGE: Overweight, spineless executive for a pharmaceutical company, Chris (Joel Murray), has been on the wagon for a year after an inappropriate, drunken incident at last year's office Christmas party. He's been passed over for a promotion and goes home to a younger wife who hates his guts (or lack there of), won't have sex with him and tells him what a loser he is for not getting the promotion. Chris' current assignment is to sell some powerful anti-dementia pills, that got the boss totally stoned ("best time I've had since college," he says). Additionally, Chris is roped into doing the Santa thing again this year and promises things won't end up the same way. Of course we can see right where this is headed. Chris spots his wife heading into the back room for a special package delivery with the guy who got his promotion. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Christmas song that plays in the background on repeat, "Have a Happy Christmas" by Geoff Hurley, is so awful that would make Paul McCartney's gratingly insipid "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time" seem like a welcome relief. Anyone would snap under these conditions.

Pissed off at life, the universe and everything, Chris decides he's going to drink a shit-load of likker and chew on some of those new anti-dementia pills. This, of course, (spoiler I guess, but not really) sets him off to steal a sackful of tools (and oddly, a bottle of booze) from a hardware store so that he can return to the Christmas party and kill everyone while making puns that would cause Freddy Kruger to face-palm... with his knife hand. He calls one girl a "buzzkill" and throws a circular sawblade in her head, he uses the old "let me axe you something" and "get ahead" for a decapitation. Oddly, when he plants a garden tool in a girl's face, he doesn't make a "ho" joke. How could the writers miss that one? The kills are mostly off camera, but the producers did throw down some pennies for a severed hand, so there's that. Oh and if you are expecting a twist here, forget it. This and HAND both can't be bothered to do anything but the obvious. That said, at least Joel Murray is a competent actor, making this the best of the lot. Don't get excited. It's not saying much.

For some reason Amelia isn't interested in the Santa suit, which Thad makes all the more appealing by telling her it was given to him by a morgue attendant. Thaddeus then notices that Amelia is wearing a ring that looks like it came out of a box of Cracker Jacks. Proclaiming it "beeeeyoooooteeful", he tries to get her to give it up, but she's got a story of her own. Cue ROOM TO LET: A teenage girl, Anna (McKenna Ralston), decides to move to a small rural town and start a new life. She rents a room in a farm house from the somewhat overdressed older woman Lavinia (Lisa Carswell) who is married to a younger comb-over creepster Robert. While in town trying to get a job, she discovers that her new employer's daughter is trying to warn her of something, but can't because her tongue has been cut out. After returning home she decides to bring up the disturbing issue with "Vini" and Robert. No, not the girl, but the fact that there don't seem to be any Christmas decorations around town (remember this is a holiday movie), to which she is told that "Christmas isn't a really big holiday around these parts". Or maybe it's because the moviemakers were shooting on the streets without permits. Nah, it's creative genius, I'm sure.

Eventually (spoilers ahead!) we discover that the town are members of a cult who worship "The Goddess" (they couldn't even steal something from Lovecraft?). Since Vini and Robert have not been able to have kids, they, with a few friends, sacrifice Anna in order to get Vini pregnant. I really have to question the life of a celestial deity. Why would you take time away from the world to focus in on a small group of people who want you to make one woman pregnant if they kill another. I'm pretty sure The Goddess would be like "they want to kill each other to get their wishes granted? Huh." and go back to watching NetFlix. (Big, but uninteresting, spoilers) As it turns out, Amelia is the daughter of Vini (couldn't see that coming) and twin sister of a girl that Thad killed so that he could steal her matching ring, which apparently he completely forgot about. Now Amelia with the help of her hilariously '90s Marilyn Manson fan friends, is going to bring her back to life in his shop, so she can have her off-screen revenge. The end.

Distributed by what is still the bane of my holiday viewing, Uncork'd Entertainment (the unscrupulous bastards who suckered in the gullible with 2018's MOTHER KRAMPUS 2, which featured precisely zero Krampi, maternal or otherwise), the DVD sports another eye-grabbing cover which is like wrapping a broken toy in gold leaf. Writers (Jeff Ferrell and Jeff Vigil) who also direct two of the episodes, careen wildly from the sub-juvenile to not even barely adequate. Granted this makes it a step up from DEADLY LITTLE CHRISTMAS (2009), but those steps start very low. The staging likewise varies wildly, but never manages to elevate itself above its Uncork'd brethren. ROOM TO LET is on the verge of being acceptable, in spite of being derivative and obvious, but is really sabotaged by Jeffrey Arrington's Robert, who lays on the smug maliciousness with a trowel and has a face that looks like it was made to be punched.

Poor Jeffrey Combs, as usual, is putting his all into yet another gotta-keep-the-lights-on role. Combs, whose career has unfortunately dwindled to the point of TV guest roles and quickly forgotten VOD fodder. While NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION (2011) was another cash-strapped and clumsy production, it offered Combs (and co-star Andrew Divoff) the rare opportunity to have far more than the scenery to chew on, with a surprising, even shocking, amount of character interaction and depth. Sure it was a junkfood movie, but Combs and Divoff used it as an actor's workshop. I'm sure that they wrote or rewrote all of the dialogue themselves. If only more amateur productions were that smart. Unfortunately HOLIDAY HELL is another throwaway part that Combs tries to inject with energy and nuance, but is betrayed by the perfunctory, juvenile script, a cheap, lazy set and overlit cinematography. Not to mention his bland co-star.

It's also worth noting that TV regular, and famous brother-having, actor Joel Murray helps elevate things for a moment before the script brings everything back down to a grade school level. I am not in any way saying Joel is a master thespian, but he instantly upstages the other community theater actors that he is working with. It's almost a bad thing to have Combs and Murray in here as it makes you think of how much better it could be if everything were upgraded to their level. And by better, I mean not quite as terrible.

Here we are in a renaissance of mainstreaming of horror that, after a pathetic demise in the 1990s, has slowly grown to encompass everything from movies, TV shows, and video games to backpacks, sneakers and greeting cards. Yet somehow, like a faded starlet who has turned to the bottle in a fleabag hotel, the once great horror anthology is forced to slum in shot-on-video, no-budget movies made to scrape the dollars out of suckers wallets in Walmart sale bins. It is a sad state of affairs. One which this movie does absolutely nothing to alleviate. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to rob a hardware store and get a fresh bottle.

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