Anna and the ApocalypseReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/05/18 22:28:21
(Worth A Look)
“Anna and the Apocalypse” is a head-on collision (and a gruesome one at that) between two of the most incongruous cinematic subgeneres imaginable—the whimsical holiday narrative filled with fresh faces and deliberately ugly sweaters that can be found running around the clock on the Hallmark Channel the moment that the Thanksgiving leftovers are safely put away and the super-gory zombie spectacular filled with rotting flesh, imperfectly severed limbs and gallons of blood spilled on every available surface. There are the usual array of romantic conflicts and silly holiday decor, to be sure, but every once in a while, one of the oversized candy canes from a lawn display has to be used to skewer another undead lug before it can take a bite out of someone. If that weren’t wild enough, consider the fact that, in addition to all that, the film is also a full-scale musical to boot with the characters warbling about live and love while at the same time crushing zombie skulls in the messiest manner imaginable. At first glance, it may seem like the kind of high-concept idea that looks undeniably promising as a two-minute trailer but which rarely manages to sustain itself as a 90-minute feature. Happily, this one prove to be the exception to the rule—a weirdo cinematic stocking stuffer filled a lot of laughs, a few legitimate scares, a number of catchy tunes and some hugely winning performances.The film starts normally enough in the small Scottish town of Little Haven, a place that high school senior Anna (Ella Hunt) is desperate to escape by taking a year after graduation to visit Australia, an idea that finds little favor with her otherwise good-natured widower father Tony (Mark Benton). After having a fight with her dad over it, Anna arrives at school to meet up with her fellow students—including best-pal-who-is-not-so-secretly-in-love-with-her John (Malcolm Cumming), loathsome ex-fling Nick (Ben Wiggins), American-born lesbian activist Steph (Sarah Swire), nerdy would-be filmmaker Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu), the super-perky star who is wholeheartedly in love with Chris—and prepare for the big cabaret show that the school is putting on that night. During these scenes, the characters begin to break into fully choreographed musical numbers—including one dedicated to the prospect that real life is not like a movie fantasy called, inevitably, “Hollywood Ending”—and while that may strike some as a bit odd, anyone who made it through the entire “High School Musical” saga will no doubt find themselves in a comfortably familiar setting.
No, things take a turn for the weird the next morning as Anna and John, neither of whom attended the cabaret in order to work, wake up in their respective homes and head off to school, singing and dancing heedlessly about the promise of a new day. In their exuberance, they somehow fail to notice that something dreadful has happened during the night and that the streets are now running red with blood and teeming with zombies chomping on anyone still around with a pulse. After finally noticing that something is amiss—an attacking zombie in a snowman costume will do that—the two finally realize that something is amiss and make their way to the bowling alley where they work in order to get off the streets. There, they run into Steph and Chris and begin to make their way through the increasingly messy streets back to their school where the army is supposed to be doing an evacuation and where Lisa, Tony and Chris’s grandmother are among those holed up. What they don’t realize is that there is something almost as fearsome inside as the zombies in the form of Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye), the school administrator who is monstrous enough in the best of times and who has been driven completely and terrifyingly mad by what he myopically sees as a threat to the school and his position in it.
“Anna and the Apocalypse” is clearly a film with a one-joke premise but it is quite impressive in the myriad ways that it is able to sustain that premise for as long as it does. The film is an expansion of the 2011 short film “Zombie Musical” by the late Ryan McHenry (who nevertheless gets a co-credit on the screenplay with Alan McDonald) and while I have not yet seen that original film, I can say that unlike a lot of short film expansions, you never feel the strain in its move to a feature length. The script does a good job of telling a story that is totally outrageous on the surface but which contains enough real emotional underpinnings to ensure that when bad things do happen to characters that we like (this is a horror film, at least in part), those events have an actual impact. Director John McPhail also does a very good job of juggling the seemingly incompatible genre touches so that they somehow wind up complementing each other in unexpectedly amusing and interesting ways. As for the musical numbers, featuring songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, they work surprisingly well thanks to better-than-expected choreography (by Swire) and tunes that are, for the most part, undeniably catchy. Perhaps the single funniest moment of the entire film—especially of the non-bloody variety—comes during the talent show sequence when Lisa performs her song, a tune called “It’s That Time Of Year” that contains enough double entendres to make “Santa Baby” seem subtle by comparison and which will almost certainly be downloaded by anyone who sees this film the moment that it ends.
The other secret to the success of the film is the performance by Ella Hunt as Anna. Going into the film, I had no idea who she was—this is the first major role for the actress—but after seeing it, I now want to see her in pretty much everything. Throughout the film she is asked to deliver comedic and dramatic beats, fend off attacks from hordes of the undead and carry a tune—often at the same time—and she does them all with equal measures of aplomb, pluck and pure screen charisma. This is the kind of role that could stymie even the most gifted of performers but she nails it throughout. The rest of the cast is also pretty entertaining as well with Marli Siu being an exceptional standout as Lisa, managing to pretty much steal every scene that she is in, not that easy a task when most of the cast is dripping various forms of viscera.“Anna and the Apocalypse” only begins to run out of steam towards the end—the songs begin to sound a little too much alike at a certain point and the shift to Mr. Savage as the chief threat to Anna and Co. over those pesky flesh-eaters threatens to drag the proceedings down—but the parts that do work are so infectiously entertaining that it is easy to forgive its occasional slips. As horrific holiday musical entertainments this season go, this may not be as creepy as that “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” boondoggle but it is a lot more fun to watch and the music and choreography and largely better to boot. Considering the amount of sticky gore on display—suffice it to say, Rudolph’s nose is perhaps the least red item on display here—there is probably little chance of it ever quite making it out of the quirky cult ghetto where it seems destined to remain for the time being. However, when that moment comes when you are convinced that you would rather have your guts torn out of your body and chomped up before your eyes than sit through the likes of “White Christmas” or “Love Actually” again, then “Anna and the Apocalypse” may be just the thing for you. Just make sure the little ones are tucked away safely first or they will never be getting to sleep anytime soon.
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