From Nicholas McCarthy

Holidays – They’ll Never Be Safe Again

Holidays. 2016. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns, Kevin Kölsch, Nicholas McCarthy, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Gary Shore, Kevin Smith, Sarah Adina Smith, Scott Stewart, & Dennis Widmyer. Screenplay by Burns, Kölsch, McCarthy, Shore, Kevin Smith, Sarah Adina Smith, Stewart, Widmyer, & Matt Johnson.
Starring Kevin Smith, Lorenza Izzo, Seth Green, Clare Grant, Michael Gross, Andrew Bowen, Ruth Bradley, Michael Sun Lee, Ava Acres, Jocelin Donahue, Harley Morenstein, Kate Rachesky, Jennifer Lafleur, Mark Steger, Scott Stewart, Peter Campion, Matt Johnson, Sophie Traub, Megan Duffy, & Shawn Parsons. ArtCastle Productions/Distant Corners Entertainment Group/XYZ Films.
Unrated. 105 minutes.
Comedy/Horror

★★★★1/2
HOLIDAYS
Anthologies can often end up a mixed bag of tricks simply because of numbers. When you put a bunch of filmmakers, albeit doing their own respective short films, into one container, there isn’t always a good flow. For instance, I thought V/H/S was a lot of fun, whereas the second installment of the series felt more varied in its quality. Then there’s Southbound, which was nearly perfect. Similar to that is the (duh) holiday-themed Holidays. With a slew of directors and writers, as well as a cast that contains several well-known and relatively new faces, this anthology tackles Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s & Father’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, and of course New Years Eve. Holidays does away with any notion of sentimentality or Hallmark movie moments. Gone are the strictly comedic adventures of the Griswold family. Nowhere will you find any cute renditions of holidays turned into romantic comedy fodder. This isn’t even a creepy Santa Claus horror flick. These directors and writers take us into the heart of any fear possibly associated with the holiday seasons, from getting that last gift on the shelf for your boy or girl, to unrequited high school love, to motherhood, and so much more.
Prepare to get dark.
Oh, and happy holidays.
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The first segment of Holidays is disturbing, top to bottom. Yet at the same time there is a tender element, if only brief and fleeting. A forbidden love story, sort of. A coming of age tale. Truthfully, one of the girls in it really annoyed me; her bullying was spot on, just so damn irritating. But it works, her character is truly terrible. The style of this segment is so retro and also modern. Little dreamy bits make their way into the plot, as Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) falls deeper into her own imagination; I didn’t even have to know beforehand that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer directed this segment (they did the fantastic Starry Eyes). Their style of directing is unique, as much as it is awesome. This Valentine’s Day short is gruesome, disturbing, uneasy. A nice way to kick the whole thing off. There’s not even much explicit nastiness, aside from the very end, and still it manages to get savage.
Next up is the St. Patrick’s Day short from Gary Shore, director of Dracula Untold. While that movie was mostly a big load of shite save a few moments, Shore does a fun job with this segment. The focus here is on a school teacher. She looks after the young children in her class, one of whom – a little ginger haired girl – is a bit creepy. Over a couple weeks things start to deteriorate for the teacher, as she has strange dreams, as well as deals with the ever weird behaviour of her little redheaded student. Although I could begin to understand where this was headed, Shore does a great job at making this a highly unnerving little short. The whole thing just made my skin crawl and really took me by surprise. Usually relegated to Leprechaun when St. Paddy’s creeps around each year, I only wish this were a longer bit of work. It’s darkly comic at times, creepy, even downright frightening, spectacularly weird. I hope Shore goes on to do some longer bits of horror, other than big Hollywood fluff like his first feature. His horror chops are strong and sharp here.
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Nicholas McCarthy personally wowed me with both his first two feature films, The Pact and At the Devil’s Door – two great little indie horror flicks. His Easter segment is dark and mysterious. It takes a great dig into the foolish holiday, as the little girl questions her mother about what Easter is all about – why eggs and a bunny when it’s supposedly about Jesus? Well, her mother doesn’t know either. When the Easter Bunny arrives – and he does arrive – it is the most horrific depiction of the creature you could manage to conjure up. The fact McCarthy even thought to do what he’s done here is outrageously impressive to me. Honestly, quite possibly the single scariest creature out of any horror film I’ve ever seen with my two eyes. There are some good ones out there, some great ones. This Bunny is right at the top of the heap. Plus, McCarthy turns the concept of the Easter Bunny (and other such figures) into something out of a nightmare, especially with what happens after the little girl is the first child to ever see him. Uh oh.
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An interesting Mother’s Day segment comes from Sarah Adina Smith, director of last year’s The Midnight Swim. A young lady is pregnant, having already terminated several pregnancies, and does not know where to turn next; every time she has sex, she gets pregnant. Every damn time. The latest doctor tips her off to some fertility ceremonies out in the desert, so off she goes with hopes of finding an answer somewhere. Everything devolves into utter madness after she takes drugs – a.k.a medicine – at the fertility spa, discovering that each pregnancy, each abortion only makes the life growing inside her stronger. But there’s more than just a bit of hippie bullshit going on at this spa. And before they all know it, the pregnancy’s become something altogether other from a child in her belly. The whole thing is eerie and suspenseful before coming to a wild end. I could have used a little more, honestly. Overall, though, Smith does a good job making her short memorably unsettling.
From mothers, we move to Father’s Day directed by Anthony Scott Burns (Darknet), whose best work I know of is on the fabulous indie The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh. Here, he crafts a spooky short which begins with a young woman named Carol (Jocelin Donahue; The House of the Devil) opening a gift, a tape recorded by her father. What follows is a chillingly tense journey towards a reunion. Along the way, the sound design, the score, the steady tracking shots, the beautiful wide angles, it all winds us up for a super haunting end. Kept me on edge and paid off without having to go too over the top.
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Kevin Smith’s Halloween – Hollow Ian, as he puts it – takes us inside a little webcam porno operation, led by Epic Meal Time star Harley Morenstein, as well as Harley Quinn Smith. The whole thing is fairly dreadful, in the right way. Behind everything is a subtle, rattling score that begins as a low piano piece then grows into something more brutal, more sinister. We’re eventually given over to a thriller that gives three young cam girls their long due revenge over a tyrannical, misogynistic boss whose treatment is far less than equal or any bit good. Love how the revenge starts off sort of comical, then escalates into more brutal, nasty, low end stuff. Smith’s writing here is both funny at times, specifically Morenstein’s character at first in his predicament and the girls all around, as well as filled with depravity. I want Smith to give up everything else and continue making horror films because he has a unique, fun voice that brings something interesting to the table.
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Director-writer Scott Stewart takes us next into his deep, dark vision of Christmas. It’s a very human drama at the start mixed in with horror, as Seth Green plays a desperate husband and father, willing to do something terribly unfortunate to make sure he gets the last of a special Christmas gift in stores for his son. What’s most interesting is how the gift itself plays into the father’s situation. This could’ve easily remained a dark psychological thriller, but opted rather to explore an almost science fiction type plot that made things exciting and turned into an altogether different piece of work halfway through. This one kept me guessing, it also had lots of dark comedy to make things ride along well.
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Finally, New Years Eve rolls around, directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, who did the vicious little horror Some Kind of Hate. This vision of December 31st is psychotic, nasty. Lorenza Izzo and Andrew Bowen star as Jean and Reggie – two people who meet online for a first date out at a restaurant, only we know that Reggie has recently shot another woman in the head. Hmm. Well, this is one of those cases such as Alfred Hitchcock would’ve liked, or done similarly in his own films, because we’re given that bomb, shown upfront the danger, and now we’ve only got to wait until it explodes. So the suspense and tension coils around us seeing Reggie with Jean, even worse after she invites him back to her place, then everything gets vastly more creepy. Problem is Reggie’s underestimated the situation and never could’ve prepared himself for meeting a girl like Jean. LOVE LOVE LOVE the writing in this little short. So brutal and macabre and just so much damn fun! After things really break loose there are a few moments of blood and gore that pay things off magically, even with a New Years Eve countdown on the television behind the chaos. Also, can never get enough of Izzo, whose presence is always thrilling in some way.
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Overall, a 4&1/2-star anthology. This one is up there for me with some of the V/H/S stuff, as well as the recent, amazing experience that was Southbound. The use of all the holidays in unique ways, the terrifying bits and pieces of each segment, the writing, the directing, the acting, the practical makeup effects in many of the segments, it is all so joyfully executed. You can tell when an anthology feels forced, as if none of the work belongs together in one frame. However, Holidays fits together in such an oddly appropriate way. The segments flow from one to the next keeping you off balance. Indulge yourselves. This is available now on VOD platforms, and soon will see a limited release. Watch this, support these filmmakers. Because the smaller indie productions are where all the good stuff is happening. If we keep supporting independent work, hopefully this will keep lots of smaller horror (and genre) pictures alive.

THE PACT: A Family’s Haunted Promise

The Pact. 2012. Directed & Written by Nicholas McCarthy.
Starring Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien, Mark Steger, Sam Ball, Haley Hudson, Kathleen Rose Perkins,Agnes Brucker, Dakota Bright, and Petra Wright. Preferred Content.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
the-pact-poster01I’ve got to confess, I really have a thing for Nicholas McCarthy’s films. Of course I saw this before Home a.k.a At the Devil’s Door (which I’ve reviewed).
The Pact took me by surprise. There’s nothing here which reinvents the wheel, changing the horror genre. All the same, I feel like there’s good suspense in this movie. There is something to say for having a nicely executed film when it comes to tension.
Personally I enjoy the slowburn film, and The Pact is certainly one of those. McCarthy doesn’t just give it all up quick, revealing everything at once; there are motions to get to where he is headed. There are plenty of comparisons to the cult TV movie Bad Ronald, a classic in its own right, but I don’t feel like there’s anything ripped off here. Similarities at one point in the plot, otherwise it’s nothing to seriously consider for long.

McCarthy’s film is interesting – it weaves aspects of the haunted house sub-genre with very raw, serial killer-esque horror. The fusion is definitely creepy, and I found it a whole lot of fun. I’ve seen it a couple times now since it first came out, I was excited to see it when it had been first announced, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again – watching it once more as I review. There are faults, like a lot of horror out there, there aren’t so many that it ruins anything. One of the better indie horror movies I’ve seen over the last 5 years.
The-Pact-2012-01Nichole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) goes back home with her daughter Eva (Dakota Bright) for the funeral of her mother. Her sister, Annie (Caity Lotz) hates their mother; it’s clear she was an abusive, possibly insane woman. Annie has too many residual feelings to go back to their old house. Finally, Nichole is able to convince Annie to come home, but when Annie does her sister is suddenly missing. With Nichole up and disappeared, Eva is sent to live with cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). However, when Liz vanishes as well, Annie experiences a strange, supernatural event in the childhood home she hates so much.
The police, of course, are involved, but naturally they don’t believe a supernatural entity is causing the disappearances. One cop, Detective Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) gives Annie the benefit of the doubt after they work past an initially rocky introduction. They go back to the house, looking for clues; Annie finds a hole in the wall, like a peephole, but not too much else. Annie tracks down a girl she knew from high school, Stevie (Haley Hudson), who acts as a ghost medium of sorts. Stevie is brought to Annie’s childhood home, where she channels the spirits – she also cries out “Judas!” over and over in a fit, until her handler Giles (Sam Ball) ushers the girl away, literally beating Annie away from them.
From there, the discoveries Annie begins to uncover are less supernatural, more real, more threatening and violent than she could’ve ever imagined.
vlcsnap-2013-01-06-16h15m59s104SPOILERS AHEAD – Don’t blame me for ruining a film if you’re here mining for clues about it before watching; that’s just fucking nonsense.
There is plenty of debate over whether or not Charles Barlow (Mark Steger), a.k.a Judas, is a ghost. People often cite the fact there is one scene where Dt. Creek visits the Barlow house and his camera catches an apparent ghost on the screen. First of all, there’s no real way you can say for sure that the ghost-like apparition on the camera screen is Judas; it’s a blurry shot. People try to argue about the screen of the lens, the shot of the camera on film, yadda yadda. Look – it could easily be the ghost that’s already established to be in the house: the mother. We shouldn’t have to mull over a part of the film that can easily be explained without getting stuck on a small shot, that seems, to me, fairly obvious in its intention. Sure, it may be a little trick to some, but I don’t think it points to the fact that Judas is a ghost. He is not a ghost, in my opinion. He is a real killer, still alive, and still killing.
haley-hudson-as-stevie-in-the-pact-2012I mean, look at this way – if Judas was a ghost, like the mother was a ghost, they wouldn’t be seen, right? Then why didn’t he just wreak havoc on the several people in the house when Annie brought Stevie over?
Logically if Judas is a real living, breathing person, he’s not going to come up and start trying to attack three people at once. Even with a knife, there’s no guarantee he would make it out of there without at least one of them getting a good punch/kick/something in on him. Judas clearly had to be somewhat intelligent enough to come up with an intricate way of snaking around the house unsuspected, killing people all those years and remaining hidden away from the outside world – so, a smart killer would know when to kill, when not to kill.
Not to mention, Stevie the ghost medium picks up on the mother; she can feel the bad things, the abuse which happened, because she hovers around the closet, which is where so much of the abuse clearly took place at the hands of the mother. Stevie doesn’t say anything that could definitively make the case that Judas is a ghost; it doesn’t seem she comes out with any indications that his is the ghostly presence being felt in the house. Could be I’m wrong, I just don’t see anything pointing directly that way when it comes to her character. A decent indication, in my mind.
Some cite when Annie sees him on the bed in the motel, I believe that’s the scene. That also does not fly. She was having some serious dreams going on, she saw a decapitated woman; don’t forget, she jumped in the air towards the door as it closed and everything froze. I mean, do we really need to start to break down such obvious dream sequences? No. We do not.
The pupil dilation argument will not stand! When a person dies, their pupils dilate immediately. Judas doesn’t have massive pupils, however, we don’t see him immediately after he dies. He lays on the floor, the door opens – we see another reaction shot of Annie – all before the camera zooms in on the dead eyes of Charles. So, we again cannot make a definitive judgement with that information because it doesn’t fully jive. The reason, I believe, that they zoomed in on the eyes is obviously because of the earlier shot of Annie – we clearly see her eyes have heterochromia. It’s visible in other shots, particularly one right near the end when she’s crying, looking in the rearview mirror of her car and wiping off the tears; both different coloured eyes are seen. What does that suggest? Well, as far as I know, heterochromia is an inherited trait, so that would come to suggest that Charles Barlow is simply an uncle – he is Annie’s own father. At least, that’s how I see it anyways. I think others out there have noticed this long before myself.

My bet is on Charles Barlow, the Judas Killer, being very much alive. Not a ghost. That’s also the dichotomous part of what I dig in this movie: one part supernatural entity horror, one part serial killer mystery-thriller. Maybe I’m wrong, and Nicholas McCarthy has this pegged as totally supernatural. Though, I doubt that. If it’s all supernatural, that sort of spoils my fun. I like the bits of ghost stuff we get with the mother – as if the pact she’d made with Judas was so wrong she couldn’t move on to death fully until it was made right – she fought to push her own daughter Annie away, even as a ghost, to try and make up for what happened in that house. It’s a real fun mix, that’s one of The Pact‘s biggest strengths as a genre picture; there’s a crossover between the types of sub-genres throughout the film.
The-PactI thought the acting was pretty damn great, especially when you consider that there are so many indie horror bombs out there saturating the market to the point of overflow.
Particularly, I found the central performance by Caity Lotz as Annie Barlow to be a knockout. She is a great actress. Certain horror films seem to want to delegate the Scream Queen role to women – not all, but a good deal. The Pact doesn’t make the man the saviour – even when Casper Van Dien rears his chiseled head to seemingly lend a helping hand (he only ends up with a slit throat for his trouble) – instead, Annie Barlow is the one who must solve the mystery, who has to confront all the worst that her childhood home has to offer; both supernatural, as well as far too murderously real. Lotz shows a good range of emotion.
This also has a good deal to do with the script. Nicholas McCarthy doesn’t make Annie out as the victim. Instead, she is a tough, maybe even hardheaded woman who won’t take no in her search for the truth as an answer. Mainly I’m just glad McCarthy didn’t make this a typical horror – even if some of the moves are cliched at times. There are predictable elements, but he avoids (most of) the pitfalls.
Also loved Judas – so damn creepy. Mark Steger did such a fucking perfect job embodying this nasty, weird killer. I was just so chilled by his love of murder, the way he moved, the way he looked. When he was crying on the bed in several of those scenes… wow.
My biggest complaint about this one is at the VERY FINAL SHOT when McCarthy cops out, going for this one last sort of freak out – an eye opens wide, peering (seemingly) through a hole in the wall. I’m not even sure what McCarthy wanted it to achieve. Most of all, I think the shot confuses his message. On the director’s commentary, I believe he actually said he regrets choosing this shot and leaving it there, if I’m not mistaken. Too bad he ended up putting it here, it really doesn’t do justice to any part of the film; cheapens the ending when I found it all effective enough. I’ve not yet seen the sequel, and don’t exactly intend to because I thought this was good enough as a standalone film without needing a follow-up.
caity-lotz-as-annie-in-the-pact-2012The Pact is a 4 out of 5 star horror film. I really do love the mix of supernatural and serial killer themes. That being said, I think that’s part of what makes the movie suffer. It’s not Nicholas McCarthy’s fault if people don’t get what the movie is aiming for – except for maybe that dreaded closing shot of the eye; big mistake. I do see that mistake as being a mixed message on the part of McCarthy.
It does not ruin the movie for me. I can’t let something minor like that closing shot totally destroy all the mood and suspense McCarthy setup throughout the entire film. Great horror movie, and again, it’s one of the best indie horror movies I’ve seen in the past 5 years or so. I dig McCarthy, and hope to see more horror from him in the future. He seems to do well with supernatural elements, though, I’d like to see him also try something that’s totally serial killer-centric; those latter parts worked so eerily for The Pact, McCarthy executed them with finesse.
See this if you haven’t yet. Maybe you’ll have a totally different opinion. Either way, I could watch this even more often than I already have because it’s creepy, fun, and a little fresh – despite what some others might have you believe.