Fantastic Fest Review: Anna and the Apocalypse
I’m going to open by saying that I am very accustomed to not getting exactly what I want. Up until my parents broke the bad news about Santa Claus, I wrote impassioned and meticulously detailed letters with the heading “Dear Santa,” and when I received the pale comparison under the Christmas tree I was grateful. And it wasn’t because we weren’t hard up, I’m not Tim Cratchett “and God bless us every one”-ing it up in here. My parents were building character through disappointment and deflated expectations and it worked. I find contentment in good-enough, make-it-fit, and borrow-your-sister’s. But here at Fantastic Fest, every day is Christmas and in the Scottish indie film Anna and the Apocalypse fulfilled my holiday wish list and had some goodies for my stocking as well.
So let me lay this out for you. Anna and the Apocalypse is a comedy-horror, teen drama, coming of age, Christmas, zombie musical. And no, this is not the grocery list for My Wildest Dreams Mart. Anna and the Apocalypse is a for-real movie I saw myself, projected on the hallowed silver screen here at Fantastic Fest, directed by John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here). The adventure takes place in the small town of Little Haven where the local high school is getting prepped for their annual Christmas show. Anna (Ella Hunt) cannot be bothered to be in the show because she is in the process of breaking the hearts of both her father (Mark Benton) and her best friend, John (Malcom Cumming) by pushing off university for a year to see the world. But “the best laid schemes o’ mice n’ men,” to quote another Scotsman, and when the cast starts falling ill and zombies start shuffling the streets of Little Haven, things start going “a-gley.” Very, very a-gley.
When I think ‘comedy-horror’ I think satisfying, over the top kills by atypical, at-hand weaponry with extra gooey death shrapnel. Anna and the Apocalypse has that in spades with a seasonal flair. Anna is featured in the poster and trailer wielding a meter long candy cane with a pointy end that is great for plunging in your lawn or the rotting flesh of the undead. My personal favorite zombie extermination was by John in Thunder Balls, the local bowling alley, when he popped a zombie head like a bad tomato with the opposing forces of two bowling balls. Very juicy. I also think of, less fondly, dumb kill-quips, which I’m totally not above, but barely pass as comedy. Anna and the Apocalypse respects itself way too much for that tripe. The comedy comes from the naiveté and sweetness of high schoolers, a delicate age where human beings are at both peak sincere and base sensible. A girl looking concernedly at foamy, puss-oozing zombie in a snowman suit and stating, “I am a first aider” is just hilarious. Each chuckle only endears you to the characters more and entangles your heartstrings so irrevocably so they can later be used to rip your damn heart out.
The music of Anna of the Apocalypse is just so beyond amazing, it has earned an honored place in my heart most cherished Horror Musicals, Phantom of the Paradise and Little Shop of Horrors. Composers Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly captured the language of the modern pop musical so completely that these songs rival that of other musical comedies that have been shredding the Broadway stage in recent memory, like Avenue Q or Book of Mormon. From the heartbreaking number “Human Voice” about the feeling of isolation in the post smartphone era to the innuendo-dense, hysterical Christmas number Anna’s bestie, Lisa (Marli Siu), performs in the school Christmas program, every song is singable and impeccable. The musical nerd in me really loves “Miles Away,” the duet Anna and John belt out as they obliviously walk to school with headphones in their ears, so deep in reverie they fail to notice the apocalypse unraveling around them. And, oh, the dance numbers. I cannot count the ways I love them so much. In the post screening Q & A, the choreographer Sarah Swire (who also played Steph, the lesbian school journalist with parent issues) mentioned that, because of the tight, low budget schedule, the scenes had to be fully choreographed in an hour or less, and the result was just so perfect. The number “No Such Thing as a Hollywood Ending” is dynamically blocked and freely danced so that each of the individual’s dancing is energized and character defining. We practically had to clear my whole row in the theater because I was so beside myself with joy and elation.
I am the type of cinefreak who can the merit in practically anything that movies, as a medium, can throw at me. Perhaps it was my childhood of rounding up Christmases to magical that has given the perspective to find the spark in even the weakest of cinematic efforts. But when a film like Anna and the Apocalypse is delivered to me perfectly packaged with my name all over it, it fills me with the spirit of Christmas like I’m Linus, Zuzu, and Cindy Loo Who all rolled into one. My greatest wish is to all of my fellow Fantastic Festers and movie lovers alike - while visions of sugarplums dance in your heads, may all of your fantastical cinematic wishes come true, may the spirit of Fantastic Fest touch every one of us, and may films bless, everyone.