31 Days to Scare ~ Holiday Hell

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious shopkeeper narrates four horror tales, each set during a different holiday.

Stars: Jeffrey Combs, Joel Murray, Jeff Bryan Davis, Meagan Karimi-Naser, Lisa Coronado

Director: Jeremy Berg, David Burns, Jeff Ferrell, Jeff Vigil

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I really tried to hold back from giving you another anthology during this year’s 31 Days to Scare but this was a new one that came my way and I had to give it a shot.  I get a sense these short film structured scare flicks are making a tiny comeback so count on seeing more pop up because they are easy to produce and, with a bigger budget and the ability to attract actors from a higher paygrade, can turn a quick profit.  Now, in the case of Holiday Hell, there’s little profit to be had because the film will be going direct to streaming so they’re counting on interested parties being enticed by the artwork and reading the plot summary.  Clearly that was enough to get me to check this out.  It’s not an entirely wasted evening but the low budget hampers this one quite a bit.

A woman is on the hunt for a last-minute Christmas gift and finds herself in an antique store owned by a weary shopkeeper (Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners) about to lock up for the evening.  Desperate, she asks him to please stay open a while longer and help her pick something out.   Like other anthologies such as From Beyond the Grave, the shopkeeper is happy to oblige and offers up four objects found in the shop and the gruesome tales that accompany them.  Now, I don’t know about you but if I had the choice between a bloody Santa suit and a really nice bottle of wine, I’d take the pinot noir any day…but obviously this woman knows who she’s buying for so she’s willing to hear the shopkeeper out.

The first story involves a porcelain mask used to cover the face of a disfigured girl that lived in a house where a massacre took place.  A group of kids has broken in for a Valentine’s Day make-out session and, shocker, a killer wearing the same mask returns and stars to off them one at a time.  There’s a bit of a mystery at play here and it works for the short running length, but any interest is often spoiled by the abysmal acting.  I liked the heroine was a girl with a hearing impairment and it had a twist I didn’t spot but I couldn’t get over some really terrible performances.  The next item the shopkeeper offers up is rabbi doll from a Hanukkah-set tale.  When a boy receives the doll as a present, he uses it as protection against his babysitter who has evil plans for him.  More bad acting in this segment but, again, a decent kernel of an idea.

The final two tales are longer and begin with Joel Murray (Monsters University) as a put-upon man in a dead-end job and a nagging wife.  As Christmas draws near, he knows he’ll have to be the Santa at his office Christmas party and when he takes a new medication his company sells before he puts the suit on, he can’t foresee the murderous side of him it will bring out.  This one was pretty sleazy and felt like it was out of place in context with the others, definitely the weakest of the bunch, though I would take a gander it was likely the favorite one of the filmmakers.  The final tale actually turns the tables a bit in a nice reversal to the previous action.  A young girl takes a room in a rural farmhouse in the middle of a town that’s decidedly creepy…and has been waiting for someone just like her to fill an important role for a childless couple.

The wraparound story that fills the gaps between the tales serves up some good moments as well, which isn’t always the case with anthology films.  Instead of being a time waster in between chapters, the shopkeeper and customer are worked in nicely to the stories and into the finale of the film.  Holiday Hell ends with a bit of a thud but it at least finishes off it’s thought before the credits roll.  I like that kind of resolution better than many horror films which seem to go to black mid-scream.  Definitely a notch above most of the awful dreck often shoved in our faces around this time of year, but could have been much better.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.