Holiday Horror

All the Creatures Were Stirring

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Two people go on an awkward Christmas Eve date to the theatre. The tiny stage production is bizarre and goes through a series of little vignettes. These vignettes go over a range of topics such as an office party gone wrong, a twist on A Christmas Carol, a killer reindeer, a Christmas demon, and an alien encounter. The one thing all of these have in common is the holiday spirit.

There are so many reasons why All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new standard in holiday horror anthologies. This is the feature film debut for Rebekah and David Ian McKendry who co-wrote and directed the film together. Their names are well-known in the horror community, and their love of the genre can be felt throughout this film. The McKendrys came up with an array of compelling short films relating to Christmas and found an ingenious way of connecting them all together. This makes the film stand out from others like it because it is rare for the short films in an anthology film to have the same writer/directors. It is even more rare for shorts by the same writer/director to be so varied in style and tone. Even with the small budget, the film also has a little something for everyone.

The overarching story follows two people on a date. It is as awkward as you would expect for a Christmas Eve date, and the hilarious little stage production they go to makes the date even more awkward. Even with the humor, the date slowly turns sinister as the plot progresses. Each vignette of the play transitions us to the next short that comprises the film. It is hilarious to catch a glimpse of the story being told on stage compared to the short film telling the same story. Each short is so entertaining in its own way. The segment featuring an office Christmas party gone wrong is violent, thrilling, hilarious, and has some unexpected moments. One segment is a reinvention of A Christmas Carol. The filmmakers do a great job of reinventing the classic story in a way that is modern and relatable for audiences, and yet creepy as well. One of my favorites shorts follows a Twilight Zone-esque alien encounter. This short feels the most sentimental and quirky, and it has two fantastic performances from the leads. In probably the most frightening segment, a last minute shopper is stranded in a parking lot where he meets two strange women. It is dark, unique, and creates a mythology I want to learn more about. Then there is the killer reindeer short, which is probably the most hilarious vignette. It has such a fun and ridiculous concept that is executed by including POV shots from a certain nameless red-nosed reindeer (wink wink, nudge nudge). I also love the vibrant red and green Christmasy color pallet used. Some of these shorts are stronger than others, but when you put them together the audience gets a great anthology film.

Each segment has fantastic actors, including many who horror fans will recognize. It is difficult to select the standout performances, but the first two that come to mind are the actors from the alien segment. Morgan Peter Brown (Ouija, Absentia) stars in this short as Steve. Brown is hilarious because of how he shows Steve’s resignation to his holiday visitors. This also plays well off of Constance Wu (Fresh off the Boat, Eastsiders) as Gabby. Gabby is not quite so used to be around aliens, and Wu’s performance is a perfect juxtaposition to Brown’s. And, what would an indie horror film be without an appearance from Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates, Almost Human) as Max, the guy on the unfortunate theatre date of the overarching story? Skipper plays the awkward characters so well, and his performance in this short is no exception. I could write an entire article just about the perfect performances of this film, so instead I will give honorable mention to the rest of my favorites: Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls), Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil), Ashley Clements (Non-Transferable), Amanda Fuller (Red White & Blue), Makeda Declet (The Thinning), Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II), Matt Long (Ghost Rider), and Maria Olsen (Reunion). The entire ensemble, even those I didn’t mention, are fantastic.

The visual aspects of this film are also very well done for a low-budget film. There are a few instances of CGI used throughout the film, but they are used fairly sparingly. The most prominent use is in the segment that retells A Christmas Carol. There are some great practical effects as well, but what the filmmakers truly excel at is controlling where the audience’s eye goes and implying things without actually showing anything. For example, in the killer reindeer segment you never actually see the four-legged killer. Instead, the audience knows what it is by the noises it makes, the glowing red nose, and the reason behind it’s sudden thirst for blood. Between the color pallets, use of black and white in certain segments, camera angles, and POV shots, there is a lot of visual interest that catches the eye. The filmmakers prove that sometimes less is more when it comes to storytelling, and it is something they do quite well.

All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new must-watch horror film for the holidays. It will be loved for Christmas the way people love to watch Trick ‘r Treat for Halloween. Not only does this film stand out from other similar anthologies because each short is written and directed by the McKendrys, but each short feels distinctly different from each other and offers a range of styles and concepts. There is something that appeals to every member of the family. Combine that with stunning visuals and fantastic performances and you get the new standard in Christmas horror. This is one film you will definitely want to add to your horror collection.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

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Secret Santa

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A large family comes together for Christmas. Like many other families, this one is broken and estranged and dysfunctional. As they all come together around the table for Christmas dinner the fighting begins. But these aren’t your ordinary family arguments. The fights turn violent and this average holiday get-together becomes a bloody, chaotic massacre.

Everyone believes they have a weird family. Some family members you love and others you can’t stand. Writer/director Adam Marcus (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Texas Chainsaw 3D) and co-writer Debra Sullivan (Conspiracy, Texas Chainsaw 3D) take something we are all familiar with and amplify it. This family has deep seeded issues due to divorce, remarriage, success, failure, and of course a large dose of sibling rivalry. When something happens that turns the family members into crazed, bloodthirsty killers the excitement really kicks in. The dynamics between various family members are some of the highlights of the film because many audience members will see themselves and their families in the film. The hilarious dialogue helps to highlight those strained relationships and it even carries into some of the kill scenes. As truths are revealed and the non-crazy family members try to fight for their lives, things get very thrilling and hilarious.

There are a few breakout performances in this film that will stick with you long after the credits roll. A early standout is Nathan Hedrick (Art of War, Seven Deadly Sins) as Jackson, the outspoken horndog half brother. Hedrick’s performance is totally over the top, but it works for his character. He’s loud, he’s crazy, and when he becomes violent he has some hilarious scenes. A Leslie Kies (The Newsroom, Jane the Virgin) shines as April. April is the perfect child among all the siblings. On the surface she seems too perfect, but as the film progresses Kies shows April’s hidden flaws and secrets in a compelling way. The true star of this film, in my opinion, is Ryan Leigh Seaton (NerdGirls, Dogs & Me) as Penny. Penny is the black sheep of the family and Seaton plays her as the sarcastic sibling who hates everyone incredibly well. Seaton also has some of the most hilarious lines and her delivery will leave you in stitches. While the entire cast is really fun to watch, Seaton is likely the one who will be remembered the most.

It’s safe to say that there is a lot of blood in this film. Fans of gore will not be disappointed. On top of that, there are some really unique kills. The film even opens with a fight from the point of view of a snow globe, which ends up being used as a weapon. This allows the filmmakers to show some very creative effects. All the attacks, from severed heads to cut Achilles tendons, are grotesque and thrilling.  Not only are these kills creative and even funny at times, but the practical effects look amazing as well. There is a level of campiness with the amount of blood and gore, but it fits in very well with the tone of the film.

Secret Santa is the holiday horror film to watch when you want to see a family that is more dysfunctional than your own. It is equal parts carnage and laughs, with outrageous characters that have you laughing and screaming from start to finish. This is the kind of film that you go into knowing it is meant to be humorous, gory, and campy. Slasher horror comedies with this kind of humor and gore can be an acquired taste, but they can also be some of the most fun experiences you’ll have in watching a film. This film will clearly become a holiday staple for horror fans.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Better Watch Out

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In a typical, quiet suburban neighborhood, Ashley goes to babysit twelve-year-old Luke. The cold, wintry night starts out like any other night babysitting, but then intruders break into the house. Ashley does what she can to keep Luke out of harm’s way, but this is no ordinary break-in. It soon becomes clear to Ashley that there is something much stranger going on and she is going to have to fight to survive the night.

It seems like every year there is a new Christmas-themed horror film released to the masses. Some of them become instant classics, while others fade into obscurity. Better Watch Out definitely has the potential to become one of those instant classics. The plot starts out like your everyday slasher. It has the standard formula of a babysitter being terrorized by a mystery person (or persons) and having to protect the child they are babysitting. The terrorizing begins with creepy phone calls and quickly escalates from there. Without going into spoiler-filled details, what makes this film stand apart from other films with a similar plot is all the surprising twists and turns. There is always something more going on than meets the eye and it keeps the audience guessing right up until the credits roll. Many of these surprises allow the filmmakers to inject humor in creative and hilarious ways. The film also gives nods to other holiday flicks that we all grew up watching.

Apart from having a great plot, this film also has fantastic performances. Olivia DeJonge (The Visit, The Sisterhood of Night) plays the babysitter, Ashley. While this character fits more into the usual archetype commonly seen in babysitter-slashers, DeJonge makes it her own. DeJonge especially shines in how she portrays Ashley’s strength despite the odds being stacked against her. The true highlight of this film is Levi Miller (Pan, A Wrinkle in Time) as Luke. While Luke tries to be serious and appear older, since he has a crush on Ashley, he often brings laughs when he gets exasperated and his puberty-stricken voice cracks. Miller delivers a performance that is equals parts shocking, hilarious, and intriguing. Both DeJonge and Miller carry the film and make it all the more enjoyable to watch.

Being a holiday thriller means there is a healthy amount of blood throughout the film. The filmmakers don’t shy away from blood, yet there is a noticeable lack of practical effects in the film. When a person is stabbed the audience is shown the blood, but the wound is never visible. Many of the shots are clearly deliberately set up to avoid showing any real gore. This seems like an odd choice for an R-rated film. Whether this is a conscious decision to not focus on gore or if it is a budget issue, I can’t say, but I believe by not showing any wounds, the filmmakers inadvertently draw more attention to them. When I watch a slasher flick, I expect to see when a knife enters a person’s body and that is one of many things not shown in Better Watch Out. This absence of gore is the one true drawback to the film.

Better Watch Out breaks the mold of the typical holiday slasher and is sure to be on everyone’s holiday must-watch list. It takes everything audiences love about the holidays and everything they love about horror to create a fun new Christmas movie. It is clever, entertaining, and exceedingly well acted. If there had been a bit more gore, I believe the film would have been a near perfect slasher. As it is, the film is still highly entertaining and one I would recommend to anyone looking for something different to watch this Christmas.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Hell House LLC

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Five years ago several people were killed in a haunted house attraction due to an unknown malfunction. The dead included many patrons as well as most of the crew. Now a documentary team is trying to put the pieces together and discover the truth of what happened that night. When a survivor of that night comes forward with new information the documentary crew decides to go back to the site of the haunted attraction. They soon discover some doors are better left closed.

Hell House LLC seems like it would be just another found footage film. While is doesn’t reinvent the subgenre, it definitely excels at it. The plot is interesting, focusing on a group of friends who build haunted house attractions for Halloween every year. This year the hotel they choose for their attraction has a very dark history. Over time things become more bizarre, leading to the disastrous opening night. This is entertaining enough, but what makes Hell House LLC stand out is the characters, the logic, and the subtle scares (most of which I will discuss later). What I will say now is that one of the most difficult things for a fount footage film to achieve is a reason for the characters to keep filming, even when things have gone horribly wrong. The filmmakers do an excellent job, for the most part, of logically explaining to the audience why the footage continues past when many people would stop. There is only one scene that leaves me with more questions than answers, but it doesn’t disrupt the filming logic.

I had the opportunity to watch this film twice in a very short period of time. The first time I watched it on a streaming service per a recommendation. The second time I watched it after receiving an email from the filmmakers with a screener for the extended director’s cut version. When watching the director’s cut I expected the aforementioned scene to be extended and further explained, but sadly it was not. It strongly hints that there is something more going on beyond what is shown to the audience, but we never get to learn what that is. While both versions of the film are great, I would recommend the extended director’s cut as it provides more character development and shows a bit more of what happened on opening night.

The most important thing I want to say is, despite watching the film two times in roughly two weeks, I was terrified during both viewings. A statement from writer/director Stephen Cognetti said, “My intent for Hell House LLC was to produce a slow burn of subtle, yet building scares. I have never been a fan of jump scares or music aided scares. My favorite type of scares in horror has always been the little things caught in the background that the protagonists are not immediately aware of. I worked to embody these sensibilities in Hell House LLC.” I too prefer the subtle scares in horror films. I can say that Cognetti skillfully achieves his goal, resulting in a truly frightening film. He creates the kind of subtle scares that stick with audiences long after the film has ended.

In a found footage film it is important the characters come across as compelling, and the characters must also have great chemistry. Nothing can ruin a found footage film more quickly than an unlikable cast. Hell House LLC has a cast of characters that are very well acted, and the chemistry between them feels very genuine. While the entire cast is fantastic, there are two standout performances for me. The first is Ryan Jennifer (I’d Kill For You) as the lone female of the group, Sara. Jones perfectly conveys trying to be one of the boys, experiencing fear, and balancing that fear with trying to be supportive of the team. Gore Abrams (Let Me Make You a Martyr) also stands out as Paul. Paul is a bit of a typical stereotype often found in modern horror films; the somewhat perverted friend with a heart of gold. What makes Abrams’ performance so memorable is how genuinely funny and enjoyable his character is. Even while his character is the focus of many scares, Abrams still manages to do or say something that delivers a laugh. Honorable mention goes to the remaining actors who made up the Hell House team; Danny Bellini (The Drifter), Jared Hacker (Pact), and Adam Schneider (Dark Skies).

If you enjoy quality found footage, and find subtle scares to be the most terrifying, then Hell House LLC is the film for you. It is the perfect Halloween horror flick to watch with a group if you want a good scare. There are only a few minor details that could be altered to get rid of one or two unanswered questions. Hell House LLC has compelling characters, chilling scares, and a simple yet interesting story. As someone who has seen this film more than once I can also say the scares hold up on second viewing. If my review has convinced you to see the film, I would suggest putting in the extra effort to see the director’s cut. This film will likely become an annual Halloween must-watch.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Favorite Things: Christmas Horror Films

Horror isn’t just for Halloween. Over the years there have been a number of great Christmas horror films to come out. Apparently Santa and his counterparts can be just as terrifying as any witch, ghost, vampire, or werewolf. When you really take the time to look at holiday horror there is to offer this time of year you may be surprised at the wide selection available to you. Keeping that in mind, I have decided to come up with my five favorite Christmas horror films. They are in no particular order, but all are beloved for their own reasons.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

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Anyone who has read my site or looked at my social media knows that I count kid horror ever chance I get. It deserves as much attention as the scariest movies. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a classic film from my youth that not only encompasses both Halloween and Christmas, but it’s a great way to get younger audiences into horror. All Jack Skellington wants to do is get to the true meaning of Christmas and we as the audience get to watch things go wrong in the funniest ways. This is the perfect family Christmas horror film for all ages to enjoy.

Gremlins (1984)

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This is another great holiday horror flick that appeals to people of different ages. It is equal parts adorable, creepy, funny, and festive. While you may think this is another kid horror movie, keep in mind that there are actually a couple fairly gory scenes and many people die horrible (albeit funny) deaths. It’s hard not to love the fuzzy little creatures that multiply and become scaly green monsters that wreak havoc on the poor little town. Just try watching this film without wishing you had your own mogwai.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

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This is one of the most iconic Christmas horror films out there. I just saw it for the first time earlier this month and it is already one of my favorites. After seeing his family brutally murdered a boy grows to be a teen before witnessing another crime that makes him snap. This leads to an often times hilariously cheesy killing spree, all while wearing a Santa suit and telling his victims that they have been “naughty.” After one viewing, this film has already been added to my required holiday films that I will watch every year.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

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This Finnish film is not just a great holiday horror film, but an all around great movie. A group of workers accidentally unleashes the first Santa upon a small settlement in the countryside of Finland. The first Santa is not the fun-loving, present-giving Santa we have come to know and love. This one comes to punish bad children by whipping them and kidnapping them. Of course there is only one child that figures out what is going on, but it doesn’t take long for the adults to catch on. This film is exciting and creepy with a lot of dark humor thrown in. It also has one of the biggest “WTF” endings I have ever seen in a horror film, but it is an absolutely perfect way to end the story. One could argue that this is another film that could be watched with the family, but it all depends on your nudity comfort level (there are a lot of naked men, but the vast majority of nudity is in the shadows).

Krampus (2015)

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This film is probably the most frightening on my list, but this is also one I will likely show my kids as they grow up. It contains many of the same themes as A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life in that it is about a person (a young boy in this case) who loses his Christmas spirit and has to find it again. It can be terrifying at times, but there is also a lot of humor to it. I may be slightly biased about this film since it follows the German legend of Krampus, and much of my heritage is German, but it is still one of the best Christmas horror films out there. If you pay close attention you will also notice nods to other horror films, as well as other Christmas films. (Click here to read my full review for Krampus).

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD FRIGHT!