On visual comedy, musical choreography, genre juxtaposition ... and the embarrassing failure of all three in Anna and the Apocalypse
Anna and the Apocalypse Orion Pictures
Director: John McPhail
Screenplay: Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, based on the 2010 short film Zombie Musical Starring: Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu, Paul Kaye and Mark Benton
Rated R / 1 hour, 33 minutes / 2.39:1
(out of four)
You had me at "zombie musical." You lost me when the music started.
Anna and the Apocalypse begins at a place of enthusiastic goodwill. Who wouldn't want to be on board for a mash-up of those particular ingredients? Grumps, that's who.
But it becomes clear rather quickly that the film's charms pretty much begin and end with the premise itself. Being won over by the concept is easy enough; the filmmakers don't hold up their end of the bargain. Having a positive opinion of this movie only tells me that you have a very low opinion of musicals. (And horror movies. And horror-comedy hybrids. But especially musicals.) Anyone with even a modest appreciation of the movie musical should have no trouble distinguishing the real thing from this dingy, amateurish impression.
I don't enjoy excoriating any movie made with such earnest intentions, but this one is frustratingly incapable of rising above the bare minimum of its ambitions. This isn't a faceplant. You respect the effort of a faceplant. This movie refuses to even take a swing; it's just happy to be here. Anna is content with having had the idea of a zombie high-school Christmas musical; the quality of the execution doesn't much matter. The musical numbers make Rob Marshall look like Vincente Minnelli. The choreography seems like a rough walk-through of bland ideas that have only been partially worked out. That half-rehearsed quality is not necessarily a disqualification, and possibly a deliberate choice - Bruno Dumont's metal musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc made a point of its lack of refinement, to often wonderful effect - but the choreographic and visual ideas themselves are so banal that the film can't even capture any raggedy "school play" charm. Some of the numbers are even worse, resembling little more than a perfunctory montage. Either way, director John McPhail never achieves the unique form of expression - the stories those moving bodies can tell, the emotional and narrative bridges their dance can so elegantly cross - the genre offers. His musical numbers too often feel like interruptions rather than extensions of the world and the narrative; he seems to think that singing and dancing are adornments rather than the very language of his storytelling.
The chintzy pop music certainly can't make up for it. Most of the film's songs sounds like they were written on an electric keyboard by someone whose musical education began and ended with High School Musical. Incidentally, the one notable exception is a number that doesn't function as part of the musical, per se, but is instead performed in a Christmas-themed talent show being put on by the high school's student body. The song in question, "It's That Time of Year," is a clever, entendre-laden, Santa-themed sex ballad ("I've warmed your milk and made your favorite snack / So come on over and unload your sack") wonderfully performed by actress Marli Siu as if she's auditioning to play a gangster's moll in a 1930s crime picture. Both the lyrics and the performance itself - props and shirtless backup dancers included - are amusingly obvious ("Lemme tell you, if / You're feeling frozen stiff / My fire's burning hot for you"), and the family members in the audience range from the outraged to the blissfully oblivious.
If only the songs actually designed for the musical format were as entertaining as that one.
Lisa is one of a half-dozen or so primary characters involved in a cluster of overlapping subplots, and who - once the zombie outbreak begins on the night of the Christmas show - get stranded and separated and brought back together as they try to survive and find their way back to loved ones either on campus or elsewhere around town. Needless to say, the most important is Anna (Ella Hunt), who's about to graduate and is planning on traveling for a year instead of going right to university, much to the consternation of her father. There's Anna's best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), a Nice Guy buried deep in the friend zone. There's Nick (Ben Wiggins), Anna's preening jock kinda-sorta ex. There's Steph (Sarah Swire) who's in the middle of both personal drama with her long-distance girlfriend and scholastic-professional drama over her work in the school paper. And there's Lisa's boyfriend Chris (Christopher Leveaux), who ... likes to film things on his camera? Like swirling plastic bags being trampled over by zombies, I guess. Oh, and he also has a dying grandmother, that's right. Lots of flimsy half-storylines for Anna writers Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry to play with.
It should be noted that the film's cast is, by and large, not part of the problem. In particular, the three principal actresses are all promising talents - especially Hunt, who has the makings of a legitimate star. But they're saddled with a movie that either doesn't know what to do with them or isn't willing to challenge them. These are performers willing to give their all, stuck with filmmakers who don't have the imagination nor the technical skill to make the most of them.
Perhaps the biggest failure of all - and that's a high standard here - is the film's complete inability to pit its two mismatched genres against each other. The combination of zombie movie and high-school musical sounds fun, but McPhail never figures out how to use either, let alone how to make use of the mashup of the two. An early scene designed to establish the tonal clash between zombie carnage and musical cheer epitomizes the director's narrow visual vocabulary. It's the day-of, and Anna is joyfully walking through her neighborhood, glued to her earbuds, spiritedly singing along. All around her, zombies are hungrily attacking. McPhail has absolutely no idea how to juxtapose these two things. Virtually his entire approach is to cut back and forth between the two - shot of Anna singing, cutaway to someone being eaten on a front yard, cut back to Anna singing, cut to someone else being eaten. What's funny about this scenario is the interaction between these two things - the bloody massacre itself, and Anna's oblivious cheer as she walks through it unaware - and yet he never thinks to let them interact. He doesn't put them in the same frame (there's some vague background carnage behind Anna as she's walking, but nothing that the composition makes use of) or juxtapose their coexistence in any way. When it comes to the comedy of the situation, it's as if he's completely incapable of thinking in visual terms. Good thing he's not working in a visual medium or anything. (The staging of a very similar scene in Edgar Wright's feature debut Shaun of the Dead should have been all the visual-comedy tutorial McPhail needed.)
That scene comes reasonably early in the film, but serves as a harbinger of failures to come. There have been some terrifically inventive contemporary musicals in recent years. The likes of Sing Street, God Help the Girl and The Muppets pull off what Anna and the Apocalypse only wishes it could. This is a bad horror movie, an inept comedy, and a borderline insulting musical. It is the cinematic equivalent of that cringeworthy high-school experience you wish you could just forget.