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Holiday horror musical ‘Anna’ deceptively packs emotion

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Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming appear in “Anna and the Apocalypse.” (Courtesy Orion Pictures)

Melding genres that don’t ordinarily mix can sometimes provide great inspiration. There are few horror-musicals, and only the family-friendly animated “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is set during the holiday season.

“Anna and the Apocalypse” embraces more grown-up attributes.

Coming from Scotland, the movie is by fresh-faced newcomers. (One writer, Ryan McHenry, died of cancer in 2015 at 27, after creating the famous viral video series “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal.”)

It begins with a burst of energy: “Christmas Means Nothing Without You,” performed in a style not dissimilar to Phil Spector’s Ronettes and Crystals classics, blasts from a car radio.

It’s the start of a bad day for everyone. Anna (Ella Hunt) has a fight with her dad (Mark Benton) on the way to school. Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), a good-hearted, doofus artist secretly in love with her, is in the passenger seat.

At school, their friend Steph (Sarah Swire, also the movie’s choreographer) — an out lesbian with platinum, plastered hair — has her car keys confiscated by the sadistic, werewolf-coifed headmaster (Paul Kaye) while trying to collect gifts for the homeless.

Despite the sour mood, two other friends, cabaret-style performer Lisa (Marli Siu) and her film geek boyfriend Chris (Christopher Leveaux), are a happy couple.

Then there’s alpha bully Nick (Ben Wiggins), who apparently has slept with Anna and loves picking on John. This introduction leads to the movie’s most exuberant song, “Hollywood Ending.”

That night at the school’s big holiday show, Lisa sings a song (“It’s That Time of Year”) dripping with sexy innuendo, a highlight.

Up to now, there’s little evidence of zombies other than some funny hints. But they’re coming.

Most of the characters become trapped inside the zombie-ridden school, while Anna and John, who were at work, and Steph and Chris, who were doing a video news report at the local homeless shelter, need to get across town to rescue them.

Screenwriters McHenry and Alan McDonald and director John McPhail, actually raise the stakes; the movie becomes darker and more emotionally resonant than its fun-loving setup indicates.

Death means something here, and when characters do become zombified, they don’t follow the standard rules of horror movies.

The movie’s flow is flawed, though. It doesn’t quite get from the fun setup to the more downbeat latter part without feeling like a downhill slide. Even the songs go from joyous and hilarious to sad and dire.

“Soldier at War,” sung by bully Nick as he and his pals loot stores and brandish weapons while enjoying the zombie apocalypse, is amusing and terrifying. And the villainous headmaster has a screeching, evil-plot song that practically stops things dead.

The movie’s three components don’t click together. The best songs are at the beginning, not spread out; the zombie stuff isn’t particularly scary, and, aside from one or two creative zombie-stomps, it offers nothing new.

Christmas fades into the background, except for somewhat irreverent symbolic use of things a Christmas tree (on fire), a spiky candy cane (a weapon), and a gaudy Christmas sweater.

Still, “Anna and the Apocalypse” is out to thwart expectations. It will knock you sideways, but the more you think about it (and the more it’s viewed during the holidays), the more you’ll like it. Good parts far outweigh the bad, and most surprising of all, “Anna and the Apocalypse” eventually, genuinely lights up the spirit.

REVIEW
Anna and the Apocalypse
Three stars
Starring: Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux
Written by: Alan McDonald, Ryan McHenry
Directed by: John McPhail
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

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