The Second Day of Christmas: Anna and the Apocalypse
From one of the most traditional of Christmas movies in Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich, 1942) that helped to establish the genre, I now turn to one of the most recent and most unusual, Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017). The two films could both reasonably be called Christmassy musical romantic-comedies, but they really are testament to how diverse even the most specific sub-genre can be, not least because McPhail throws zombies into the mix. You’re telling me you’ve never thought of a zombie-Christmas movie crossover before? You’re telling me you don’t think that would work at all? Read on, and you might be surprised…
Despite its generic similarities, Holiday Inn probably isn’t the best touchstone in wrapping your head around Anna and the Apocalypse. A better comparison would be to describe it as a mash-up of Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and High School Musical (Kenny Ortega, 2006), with just a sprinkling of reindeer dust on top. We follow the titular Anna (Ella Hunt) and her fairly typical cohort of classmates and friends as they struggle with the final year of school, and wrestle with the path their life might take afterwards. Of course, there are a number of other difficulties for them too: the school Christmas show, their love-lives, and, oh yeah, the zombie apocalypse. Indeed, some of the film’s best moments come in its juxtapositions, whether that be the strange sight of zombies dressed as snowmen, or the clash of the apocalypse with the troubles of real life. There is one early sequence, very reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead, where Anna and her very Scottish best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) sing and dance their way to school, blissfully unaware of the carnage happening all around them. In these moments, Anna and the Apocalypse shines, and I was unable to keep the smile from my face at the sheer silly joy of the characters’ predicament and the way the movie did not seem to be taking itself too seriously. It also helps that some of the songs are pretty damn good; some are simplistic but infectious pop numbers, other are more like an indie makeover of the whole High School Musical vibe. And Ella Hunt truly stands out as she larks her way through it all, a true triple threat of acting, dancing and singing, making her mark on the role of a confused teenager, a seeming rite-of-passage for the best young actresses, from Saoirse Ronan to Hailee Steinfeld. Though Hunt has yet to land a proper breakthrough role, I definitely hope to see more of her in the near future.
Unfortunately, Anna and the Apocalypse slowly runs out of steam the deeper we get into its runtime. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for this, but I think it is down to a multitude of minor factors gradually dragging the movie down. First, there is a certain novelty to watching a ridiculous combination of singing schoolkids, Christmas cheer and zombies. Once you begin to get acclimatised to these strange sights, the film begins to lose its magic a little. Second, though not totally disconnected from the first factor, Anna and the Apocalypse becomes increasingly predictable and, dare I say it, generic, as characters are killed off and it gets ever closer to its climax. Third, to compound these other issues, the film is clearly working on a limited budget, and I think it spent up in the delightful musical apocalypse sequence in its first half. Therefore, you feel as though the film could not afford imagination in the way it kills off some of its characters, and most of them die off-screen after not totally convincing set-ups. And worse-still, the climax we feel we are building towards turns into a bit of a damp squib, the zombies ultimately providing very little threat and the true villainy coming from an uninteresting character with very odd motivations.
So does Anna and the Apocalypse successfully subvert Christmas values? Does it even set out to do so? Well, it does loudly proclaim that “there’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending”, and it doesn’t exactly have the family-centric resolution you might expect from a Christmas movie, although Anna does move on to freedom of a sort, and the possible new beginnings she’s been yearning for. It has Christmas imagery without Christmas resolution, new beginnings rather than traditional values, and so, in some senses, it is a truly alternative Christmas experience. However, you do feel like Christmas is being used as more of a prop rather than an integral aspect of the movie, and perhaps, in the eternal annual squabbles, that makes it not a Christmas movie, but rather a movie set at Christmas. Furthermore, after 90-odd minutes of silly chaos, it is difficult to take the movie seriously, and so any subversion of the traditional Christmas spirit is certainly a gentle one. Indeed, as the characters drive away from danger in the film’s final shots, reflective looks painted on their faces, I was left kind of empty. Sure, I’d enjoyed an hour or so of light entertainment, but it was that and nothing more, and I imagine that, despite its compelling peculiarities and genre bending, Anna and the Apocalypse is not a film that will live on very long in the memory.
At time of writing, Anna and the Apocalypse is available to watch on Now TV/Sky Cinema.