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ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE *****

Directed by John McPhail. Starring Ella Hunt, Ben Wiggins, Malcolm Cumming, Marli Siu, Paul Kaye, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux. UK 2017 108 mins Certificate: 15

Released on Double Disc Blu-Ray on December 2nd 2019 from Second Sight Films

 

Here’s a joyous movie that joins FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS in the relatively elite club of “great horror comedies with an animated title sequence”. It’s also a welcome addition to the even more elite club of great horror musicals. The club’s core member might be Brian De Palma’s wonderful PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, given that both ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (reminder: all the good songs are in the first hour) and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS lean more towards sci-fi. You also have to be in the right mood for the excesses of REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA – though parts of it are fabulous – and the tune barrage / Gore-Blimey acting of Tim Burton’s SWEENEY TODD.

 

ANNA is a feature length expansion of the late Ryan McHenry’s short film ZOMBIE MUSICAL and, as far as genre-melding hybrids go, has brass balls for being the first ever Scottish Christmas horror comedy zombie musical. At the outset, the eponymous, motherless Anna (the hugely appealing Ella Hunt) is planning her gap travel year much to the chagrin of her loving, protective dad (Mark Benton). She might still hold a torch for bad boy ex Ben Wiggins and really needs to ensure that her besotted best friend (Malcolm Cumming) knows their relationship is purely platonic. Looming over all is fascist headmaster Paul Kaye (relishing his teeth-clenching, child-hating bastardry), who keeps a characteristically miserable eye over his pupils’ big Christmas show. Here, scene stealing Marli Siu performs a splendidly smutty, inappropriate ode to Santa in front of astonished / satisfied attending dads while the zombie apocalypse (hitherto a background detail) steps up several gears outside, trapping some of them in the school.

John McPhail’s hugely endearing movie relishes the opportunity to showcase undead Santas, elves and snowmen while happily trashing the typically horrible school festive showcase (“It’s like Narnia threw up over Oz”), but its biggest triumph is its dedication to crafting credible, likeable teen characters and affording them depth via irresistibly catchy musical numbers. Anna’s yearning to escape from her small-town trap is captured via early aspirational tune “Break Away”, transforming into an anthem for peers equally desperate to do something of value. Showstopper “Hollywood Ending” directly acknowledges the influence of HIGH SCHOOL: THE MUSICAL- a witty, rousing cafeteria ensemble (incorporating dinner ladies) with added attitude: key lines are “This isn’t Disney” and “I’m not a princess”. “Human Voice” offers an emotional lament about modern communication while the bombs drop outside and the charismatic Wiggins gets a rousing rock anthem to accompany a zombie killing spree. Kaye – expertly playing a pathetic, embittered little man who needs an apocalypse to get some semblance of power and purpose - cuts loose with an aggressive celebration of societal breakdown with “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” and even the obligatory big ballad, “Where is the Light” is a stirring anthem of hope set against a despairing montage of infected loved ones.

 

ANNA is one of very few films in the over-populated zombie cycle to understand why 21st century benchmark SHAUN OF THE DEAD works so well, successfully aping its key beats while never losing its own identity. Shaun’s memorably oblivious walk through early-morning virus-hit London is here recreated as a hopeful duet for equally oblivious protagonists celebrating a brand-new day while mayhem explodes all around them (it climaxes, as all good things do, with air guitar in a graveyard). The pop culture nods, neat throwaway jokes (an early possible-zombie that turns out just to be an asthmatic student) and apocalyptic geek humour – speculation about whether Ryan Gosling and Taylor Swift have been “turned” – are all reminiscent of the Edgar Wright classic. The gore gags manage to find novel fresh twists on familiar territory: a bravura see-saw snowman-zombie beheading is a highlight, and, although we’ve had zombies-in-a-bowling-alley before (c.f. WASTED AWAY), we’ve never had it with as much chutzpah.

The music riffs cleverly on standard zombie movie tropes and plot turns, enhancing rather than detracting from the drama: “What Side Are You On?” is a vigorous musical version of all those key zombie movie sequences in which two disparate camps (here, the headmaster and Anna’s dad) fail to agree on the best course of action. One of ANNA’s most impressive feats is not copping out when it comes to good people dying horribly, despite being eager to please in every way and peopled with hugely appealing characters (Cumming, in an array of suitably awful festive jumpers, is especially adorable). The longest of the two versions showcased on this release gives the characters more time to breathe and only enhances our investment in their plight. Few recent movies have managed such a deft mix of humour, genre references, gruesome horror and genuine emotion…and fewer still can make a rightful claim to the title of great Christmas musical. Make space on your shelf next to MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and clear out your brain to allow for at least three catchy songs that will now be permanent fixtures

 

Extras - Second Sight’s two disc Blu-ray release carries over the various extras (deleted scenes, director’s commentary, gag reel, etc.) from the earlier DVD edition but the HD upgrade is essential in regard to the imaginative shifts in the film’s colour scheme during the second half when the plot, and the visuals, get progressively darker. Crucially, the Blu-Ray contains both the earlier UK cut and the longer 107 minute “festival cut”. As explained in the extras, the original cut (as shown at Fantastic Fest 2017 and Frightfest 2018) was picked up by Orion with the requirement to shorten for U.S. release. In the process, two musical numbers were abridged and one (“What Side Are You On?”) removed entirely. (That number, as a result, doesn’t appear on the movie’s official soundtrack release).

 

The existing extras are now joined by two essential new features. Ryan McHenry’s ZOMBIE MUSICAL is the short that started it all. Shot in three and a half days for £4000 while he was still a uni student, it broadly follows the same structure: after an animated title sequence, it follows a schoolgirl (also called Anna) who wakes up to a zombie apocalypse. There’s a similar “breakaway” song featuring Anna surrounded by suburban chaos, and an “If we met in another time…” type ballad. The feature, of course, benefits from a full arsenal of great songs and more charismatic actors, but, on its own terms, this fast paced, frequently gruesome BAFTA-winning short is audacious and ambitious.

 

The brand new 85 minute “making of” documentary provides more detail about ANNA’s origins, and the long path it faced en route to the big screen. The enthusiasm of everyone involved in the feature film feels very genuine and touching, particularly in the light of McHenry’s untimely death during the seven years between the short and the release of ANNA. We learn of the challenges in the Scottish location shoot – five seasons in one day, continuity horrors, filming musical numbers in the freezing rain. Director John McPhail is a huge horror fan who was unable to make it past the first 15 minutes of HIGH SCHOOL THE MUSICAL, but reminds us that HAPPINESS OF THE KATIKURIS came first in the zombie-musical-comedy cycle. The insight into the film’s casting reminds us just how inexperienced most of the young cast were at the time of the film’s making and, as with all the really good behind the scenes documentaries, you come away with even more respect and admiration for the finished product.

 

Steven West.

 

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