Saturday, December 29, 2018

Holiday Horror: All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018)

All the Creatures Were Stirring is an anthology holiday horror film. The frame story has friends Max and Jenna seeing an avant garde, minimalist play on Christmas Eve. A title card for each segment is presented and a part of it is pantomimed after each one. Overall, the frame story is cute and a little weird. The ending of it (titled And To All a Good Night) seems unfinished, but is definitely creepy and unsettling.

* All the Stockings Were Hung

A corporate Christmas party with white elephant gifts goes horribly wrong. Someone decides to make it his personal Saw where the building is flooded with toxic gas and coworkers have to open presents that could be conventional presents, weapons, or something that exposes a secret. This segment ramps up really fast with the first surprising kill. People's behavior goes south real fast as this sick game continues. The corporate environment is captured well and a few kills are unexpected and well done. It's a fun short for sure, but the bad effects, tenuous logic in choices, and spotty acting held it back.

* Dash Away All

A man is last minute grocery shopping on Christmas Even when he locks his phone and keys in his car. The only people around are three women in a van, so he approaches them for help. This is my favorite segment by far because the concept and execution are the best. There's a little bit of Christmas in the family frustration and shopping aspect and a really interesting creature that is mostly kept hidden. It's hard to talk about this one with spoilers, but it's the most successful and fun of all the segments.

* All Through the House

A curmudgeonly man, who hates his neighbors and their gaudy Christmas decorations, decides to stay home and watch TV on Christmas. It's essentially a modern, short take on A Christmas Carol with a coke-snorting jerk instead of a greedy old man. This segment is pretty forgettable for the most part because it doesn't really do anything to the formula of the story. The rest comes off as silly and weird without much of a payoff.

* Arose Such a Clatter

A distracted driver hits a reindeer and bashes its head in to put it out of its misery, but something witnesses the accident and follows him home. The concept is fun and one of my favorites, but the reality disappoints. It's revealed quickly that the reindeer is Blitzen, so Rudolph watches and seeks revenge. This could have been so fun, but Rudolph is never shown. We only see his red tinted point of view. The budget clearly wasn't there to fully flesh out the unique concept and the acting makes the characters seem like they aren't taking the threat seriously.

* In a Twinkling

Gabby and her friends have a surprise Christmas party at her boyfriend Steve's house. He always spends Christmas alone and they all will soon find out why. This segment would fit in well with The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. There are automaton people who look like their friends, some unknowable beings, and a surprisingly sweet ending. This one has the best acting by far and it's a wonderful segment to end on.

Overall, All the Creatures Were Stirring has a lot of potential and good concepts, but the execution suffers at times. Most of the segments look very low budget and what visual effects looked shoddy. Many segments are supposedly to be dark comedies, but the execution made it fall flat for me. I had high expectations for this, especially with the inclusion of several talented indie horror actors. However, there's something missing in the writing and acting and the budget seemed to limit their ideas.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Holiday Horror: Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

In Little Haven, Anna and her friends are seniors in high school and poised on embarking their adult lives. As they agonize about the effect they have on the world, what they will do next year, and if their love is returned, zombies take over their town on Christmas. Anna and her friends must hack, slash, sing, and dance their way to the school to rescue their friends and families.

Anna and the Apocalypse is a breath of fresh air in the current state of horror. Most films take themselves deadly serious and it's nice to have a horror comedy that provides gore, some drama, a little bit of sadness, and a lot of humor. Our protagonist Anna is bored with her small town and wants more for her life than what her friends and father want for her. Her friends want everything to stay the same so they hang out and have fun while her dad wants her to immediately go to college and embark on a career. She wants to explore the world and find her place in it before she settles down to adult life. This is met with incredulity and eye rolls from everyone around her. It's a horrible feeling at any age to not be supported by those around you.

The other teens have different goals in mind. John is Anna's best friend and completely in love with her. He has conventional dreams to go to college. Their friends Chris and Lisa are rather wrapped up in each other. Steph is more of an outcast, but wants to truly make a difference in her community while being thwarted by classmates and authority figures at every turn. This varied view of teens feels refreshing. They aren't all bored or consumed by technology or monolithic in any way. Everyone wants something different and wishes others would see and support them. The one outlier is Anna's ex Nick, a bully who spread rumors about Anna. Even his character is fleshed out and sympathetic by the end of the film.

The songs prove to be much better than I expected. In the trailers, the tune and words seemed fairly basic. However, each song shows how a character feels and is fun to listen to. Break Away and Hollywood Ending establish the characters and what makes them tic with relatable themes of fitting in, the unknown of the future, frustration, and dreams. It's That Time of Year is ridiculously laden with double entendres, a more vulgar Santa Baby. Soldier at War is my favorite zombie fighting song with sass and energy. My favorite visually is Turning My Life around because Anna and John obliviously sing this upbeat, inspirational song as zombies destroy their town.  Even seemingly throwaway songs are a delight like Christmas Means Nothing Without You and The Fish Wrap. The former could have been any Christmas song, but it gave a specific flavor at the start of the film. The latter is so silly and punny that I wish it were longer. The songwriting is good on every song even if the production and orchestration aren't the best. The use of non-autotuned voices is not only refreshing, but makes the characters and the film have a sense of realism and vulnerability.

The actual plot is pretty basic with Anna and her friends gathering weapons (the best being the giant candy cane lawn ornament) and saving their friends and family. Tonally, the vast majority of the film is lighthearted and fun, which I love. Some scenes are more comedic like Headmaster Savage's whole character and his songs. He desperately wants to control everyone in the school and becomes hilariously unhinged when zombies attack. When people start dying, it just doesn't have the emotional resonance needed. It seems out of character compared to the rest of it and simply doesn't fit. It's the only real flaw in an otherwise fun, enjoyable film. The ending has a dose of realism that felt more in line with everything else.

I knew Anna and the Apocalypse was my kind of movie just from the trailers. This Christmas zombie romantic comedy musical combines the gore and horror of zombie films, the wonder of Christmas, and the warm fuzzies of a romantic comedy with some surprisingly well written songs. The main characters feel real with their own view of the world and how they fit in it. The film's biggest strength is taking its teen characters seriously and portraying them as varied. I had so much fun watching Anna and the Apocalypse and I'm eager to own it to put into my yearly Christmas viewing rotation.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Holiday Horror: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina's A Midwinter's Tale

A Midwinter's Tale is a holiday episode that takes place right after the end of the first season. Sabrina has signed her name in the Book of the Beast and essentially turns her back on her mortal life. The winter solstice is when the veil between this world and the world of the dead is thinnest, so witches huddle around their yule logs, lit all day and night to stave off supernatural threats. Sabrina decides to have a seance to contact her mother trapped in limbo, but Madam Satan extinguishes their Yule log at the same time to expose her and her family to dangerous creatures.

A Midwinter's Tale is a fun interlude between the first and second seasons of the show that deals with the fallout of the season one finale and draws from various dark Yuletide mythologies. Susie and Roz are still being awful, shunning Sabrina even though they had hidden powers they didn't tell her about. Sabrina is equally terrible because she still arrogantly solves Harvey's problems with magic even though she knows he wouldn't want that. He rightly sets a defined, specific boundary against Sabrina using magic on or around him even though he already made his feelings clear. I'm excited to see more of this confident Harvey in the next season.

The Church of Night celebrates Yuletide in their own way with pentagram wreaths, Yule trees with Satanist ornaments, sharing ghost stories, and an ever burning Yule log to stave off evil spirits loose in the world. It's charming and a wonderfully dark version of the holiday. Sabrina decides to use this dangerous day to have a seance to contact her mother trapped in limbo. Madame Satan decides to sabotage the effort because Satan ignored her victory in getting Sabrina to sign his book. It's disappointing to see Madam Satan being so insecure and vindictive after being the grand manipulator of the first season.

Two figures from Christmas folklore make an appearance. The first is Gryla called upon to collect her Yule lads, mischievous spirit children who have invaded the Spellman home and played some dangerous tricks. When alive, she made a pact with another witch to eat their own children to survive. Gryla ate her child, but the other witch didn't, so she has spent over a thousand years collecting children. The Icelandic myth has her eating misbehaving children, so the show takes some liberties. However, I enjoyed the tricky way the Spellman's dealt with her. The second figure is Bartel, a demon who collects beautiful people and encases them in wax a la House of Wax. In actuality, he's the Austrian version of Krampus, but his embellished method of punishment is nightmarish. These figures are tricky for the Spellmans to navigate around and brought a fun horror flavor to Christmas.

A Midwinter's Tale is only one episode, but it made me excited for the next season of the show. The biggest take away for me is the stark difference between Sabrina and Zelda. Sabrina is willing to risk everyone else to get what she wants (as observed by Zelda) while Zelda is willing to have Leticia raised by other witches for her safety. Other than that, I did love some of the developments with the seance and Sabrina's mother. This holiday special ended with a bang and showed promise for further episodes.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins