There are thousands of horror movies, and over a hundred of them focus their chills and thrills around the Christmas holiday. (Trust me.) Of that latter grouping, though, only one has also ticked the anthology box. 2015’s A Christmas Horror Story has its ups and downs but is at its best as a fun and surprising creature feature when Krampus and zombie elves come to town. It’s happily no longer alone in this very small sub-genre niche as writers/directors Rebekah McKendry & David Ian McKendry are making their feature debut with the Christmas-themed horror/comedy anthology All the Creatures Were Stirring.
Max and Jenna are friends who meet on Christmas Eve as they have no one else in their lives at the moment. Picking are slim for their date, so they settle on a small show in a tiny theater featuring five stories brought to life by mostly silent performers with minimalist stage dressing. The common theme between them is Christmas and an odd collection of terror and ridiculousness. Each short starts on the stage before shifting into a proper short film and then returning to the increasingly awkward couple and the oddballs sharing the theater with them.
“The Stockings Were Hung” opens at an office Christmas party that looks about as fun as you’d expect. It’s clear this is more of an obligation than a joy for the employees, but their boredom disappears quickly when a gift-opening round of White Elephant is interrupted by a madman who’s locked the doors, rigged the presents, and threatened to kill every single one of them.
The film’s as much of a comedy as it is horror, but with workplace shootings a reality there’s an objectively frightening element at play here as the first death comes with a gunshot to the head. A knife and some deadly gas come into play too, and there’s ominous fun to be had every time the killer voices his threats and demands over the speakerphone. Character behaviors are a mix of smart and stupid as office politics interrupt the mayhem, and while it builds some suspense it ends before truly capitalizing on it. Still, it’s a good start.
“Dash Away All” introduces a man who only wants to get home for Christmas Eve dinner with his family, but fate, a creepy van, and two kind young women have other plans. Eric is last one out of the shops, and in his rush to load the car he accidentally locks himself out of it. The parking lot is deserted aside from a van, and while he’s leery at first the two women inside offer him help. He really should have trusted his intuition.
This is easily the film’s strongest segment as our hapless protagonist’s caution feels accurate and builds tension. He suspects something is amiss with the girls, and we know as much, and the reveal delivers with a satisfying turn of events. Some of the details are a bit iffy — there’s relevance to people born on Christmas Day, but while we know it’s important we never really hear why — but the outcome and some solid practical effects work make for a tight and thrilling piece of holiday horror.
“All Through the House” is a modern-day take on Scrooge and A Christmas Carol.
If the synopsis on this one seems slight it’s because the short itself doesn’t really warrant more than that. There have been numerous riffs on Charles Dickens’ tale over the years, and while the best stick to the text (or involve the Muppets) updating it to modern times isn’t alone enough to make it stand apart. This one tries to go heavy on the laughs, some of which land while others don’t, but some surreal touches hurt more than help the overall effect.
“Arose Such a Clatter” opens with a hit and run of sorts as a distracted driver collides with a deer. It’s clinging to life, so the man smashes its head in with a rock to end its suffering, but while he’s in the middle of nowhere a witness is watching from the bushes. An angry, red-nosed witness that follows him home with vengeance on its mind.
The premise of this one is pretty damn brilliant as Rudolph seeks revenge on the deer-killing driver, but the resulting short is unable to live up to the idea. It’s a one-note story that really needs to fully commit to the gag on the effects front and show us the ornery reindeer and some gory kills, but budgetary limitations mean we get neither. We’re instead left with red-tinted POV and some antlers, and it’s just wholly underwhelming.
“In a Twinkling” invites us to a Christmas dinner party at Steve’s house. Well, he didn’t actually invite us, or anyone for that matter, but his girlfriend Gabby (Constance Wu) and some other friends show up anyway. There’s a reason he likes to spend the day alone, and Gabby’s about to discover that she’s made a bad call this Christmas.
The final segment would feel at home in The Twilight Zone revival or reboot of The Outer Limits, and that’s not a knock. There’s something nifty at its sci-fi core,and while it’s not fully taken advantage of there’s enough to enjoy here in its stylistic touches and performances. It’s the most uplifting and violence-free of the stories here and a fitting note to end things on (although we are left wondering where three of the friends disappear to).
As a collective whole All the Creatures Were Stirring is a perfectly passable diversion. The second short is damn good while the other four plus the wraparound are a mix of meh and merely okay making for a harmless but forgettable experience. It’s clear the McKendrys know the genre (as well as a lot of people in Los Angeles’ horror scene), but the shorts that don’t work stumble in their execution and/or ambition. Genre fans, particularly those of us addicted to Christmas horror movies, should still give it a spin both for the beats that work and in the hopes that the filmmakers return with something even better.
All the Creatures Were Stirring hits On Demand, Digital, and DVD on December 4th, 2018.