Musicals. There aren’t many in the horror film genre. Sweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors, and Repo: The Genetic Opera are probably the few that come to mind. That’s because they’re part of just a handful that have come around. Which is a shame, because horror has proved to be an incredibly effective genre to pair with a musical when done right, as many, many stage shows have proven. Hopefully, Anna and the Apocalypse will inspire more up and coming horror filmmakers to putt a little jazz in their gore…
…Directed by John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here?), with a script from Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, Anna and the Apocalypse stars Ella Hunt as Anna, a girl with dreams of “getting out”, who finds herself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse during Christmas. Joining her friends in a race to save their loved ones trapped at the school, Anna begins to realize what she is leaving behind, and what she could lose forever.
I know there are some of you out there who want to automatically turn your nose up at the mention of a musical, and I get it. I used to be like you. But Anna and the Apocalypse demonstrates what I learned a long time ago, which is that musicals are not just an excuse to have characters randomly break into a song for no reason other than to dance, dance, dance. Musicals give characters opportunities that a standard film does not. They take us deep into a character’s mindset, all the way down to their emotional core, by using song and dance as a replacement for inner monologues that would not work on screen otherwise. And let me tell you, between the script and the music by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, Anna and the Apocalypse will get that little black Grinch heart of yours pumping again before it rips it out entirely.
That’s because Anna and her friends are so horribly loveable, that it kills you to watch them get picked off one by one as the story goes from Christmas fun and cheer to Krampus levels of entertainment. There isn’t an actor/actress in this film that won’t endear you to them. Everyone, from Anna’s so-in-love-with-her-he-might-as-well-be-her-puppy friend, John (Malcolm Cumming) to the surprisingly redemptive high-school bully Nick (Ben Wiggins), have their moments that will make you laugh or cry or cry while laughing. Paul Kaye makes the perfect Grinch of the group as an uptight and slightly psychotic principal, and Steph (Sarah Swire) is the painfully awkward but rad version of a lot of us from school (at least I thought I was rad). Anna, though, is the real star. Hunt has a way about her which is hypnotic. The way she moves while performing dance numbers and kicking zombie ass, it’s enough to make you want to stand up and shout “sing it, Anna”! Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she also happens to be a zombie-killing badass that makes me glad to be alive in a time where women are being revered on screen as the hero, the way they always should’ve been. I personally cannot wait to see what Hunt does next. This is the sort of cast that is going to have you smiling and laughing all throughout while wishing these people were your friends as well. But Anna and the Apocalypse is, at its core, still a horror movie, so you won’t want to become too attached.
McPhail has a keen understanding of the horror genre and what fans expect, so while the spirit is full of Christmas cheer and musical numbers that may inspire you to get up out of your seat and dance, there is still enough carnage and gore to make Santa vomit all of those cookies right back up. A good way to look at it would be to think of Anna and the Apocalypse like Shaun of the Dead meets High-School Musical. A lot of critics out there are using the Shaun comparison, but I don’t think it’s for the right reasons. It’s easy to make that reference, considering the “zombie-comedy” aspect, but for me, there’s a much more important similarity. Shaun of the Dead endears you to its cast before quite literally ripping them apart in front of your eyes. Anna and the Apocalypse is the same way. McPhail does not shy away from bloodshed or death in the slightest. Anna and the Apocalypse is a winter wonderland of gory dance routines which involve decapitations, skull crushing, intestine tearing, flesh ripping, and enough arterial blood-spray raining down to paint the streets red. Hence the reason I said you’ll laugh while crying. The effects in Anna and the Apocalypse are top-notch, but so are the emotions running rampant.
Now I know I keep mentioning the emotional aspect of this film, but I can’t overstate enough how downright fun Anna and the Apocalypse is. McPhail is like a kid in a blood-soaked candy store, and so is the rest of his team. Looking at the High-School Musical side of the film, Hart and Reilly do something with the compositions that a lot of big-budget musicals seem to stray away from. While musicals like La La Land strive for more old-fashioned type renditions, Hart and Reilly go for more of a Disney channel-esque tone, with songs that are entertaining, goofy, and all wrapped around the sorts of dilemmas that face teenagers, such as fitting in and first loves. Again, though the story itself is rife with tragedy, the music in Anna and the Apocalypse ultimately wants you to have a great time, no matter what sorts of horrors are being displayed on screen. The blending of the highly entertaining dance numbers and sometimes sad, always outrageous terror, makes for a unique experience that you won’t get anywhere else this year. It’s fun for the whole family, as long as the kids can handle a little intestine-chewing.
Aside from character, writers McDonald and McHenry also do an incredible job with the script, providing a Santa’s sleigh full of twists and turns that will keep audiences guessing at who is going to make it out of this strange Christmas story alive. Often in musicals, story becomes secondary, crammed down into one simple plotline, but these guys do enough to make sure we’re actually surprised by what’s happening. Anna and the Apocalypse WILL shock you. This movie is one gut punch after the other, and just when you’re curled up in a ball on the floor and not looking, all eight of Santa’s reindeer kick you again while he utters a jolly “ho-ho-ho” as you scream “why?” My only complaint here is that the demise which many characters meet, suffering a bite and needing to be “left behind”, can become a bit repetitive, but the emotional value of these scenes belies the occasional frustration at wanting to see something different.
Anna and the Apocalypse is the sweet smell of cookies on Christmas morning, the peppermint schnapps in your egg nog, and the feeling of excitedly tearing up presents from under the tree. This movie took me on an emotionally rewarding roller-coaster full of highs and lows while satisfying my inner gore hound, and it deserves a spot in every horror fan’s stocking come this Christmas Eve.
Anna and the Apocalypse is now playing in limited theaters.
By Matt Konopka